Editorial: A lesson in public records


Editorial: A lesson in public records

Michael Gold, editor

As I have been quoted, many times, there will never be a free nation without a free press. Citizens of most states do not enjoy the same ease of access to public information as those in Florida — we have one of the most open public records laws in the nation (F.S. 119).

Although I am a licensed private investigator, and possess the appropriate press credentials to be able to reach some public documents a bit faster than mere mortals, there is honestly no good reason for any citizen to be delayed, or, God forbid, denied, their right to inspect documents that the government possesses about themselves, other persons, or other entities.

The “fourth estate” is a named class in the First Amendment of the US Constitution; “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” So, as a member of the press, I use my privilege to reach newsworthy documents in the possession of our government so that I can include them in my published reports.

Which brings me to a philosophical point. Borrowing from the words of a great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, why should a government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, be able to control the free flow of information about the people to the people? If it is the civic responsibility of the people to establish a government to provide those things for us as a nation that we cannot provide for ourselves, is every piece of information about those activities a matter of “national security”; so highly protected that a background check and fingerprints are required before you can be cleared to ever see it?

With that in mind, next week, Historic City News has learned that State Representative Travis Hutson will introduce HB 599 to the Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee; that, if approved, will create an “exemption” to the existing statutory requirement of the state to release information collected by electronic license plate readers upon the receipt of a citizen request.

Today, these readers appear alongside Florida roads and Interstate highway exit ramps, but nothing would stop them from being installed anywhere there was a public or private interest. In very simplistic terms, you could think of them like the vast sea of security cameras in every public place you can imagine — except that they are trained to focus on a vehicle’s license plate instead of a person’s face.

During Representative Hutson’s research, he says that he is aware of them either placed in fixed locations, such as parking garages, or in government vehicles. He praises the readers as “a more efficient way to be able to read the license plate without the officer having to manually input this data.”

At issue is what happens with this piece of information once it is collected. Unless it is protected as part of an ongoing criminal investigation, or falls under one of the few other existing “exemptions”, this data is stored and is able to be reviewed if need be.

Hutson says this concerns him because “anyone” can initiate a public records request, for any reason, and they will obtain the information recorded; typically, the license tag number, the location where the information was collected, as well as the date and time of the transaction. As with all other public records requests in Florida, the requester does not have to give their personal information, nor are the employees allowed to ask for it.

Hutson, and the Bill’s supporters say that, although there is a legitimate reason to collect the information, it could be used to keep track of a person’s driving habits. The holder of the information could use this information against them, or to cause harm.

I say, Travis, you better have a more compelling reason than that. If the taxpayers are paying to collect the information, they should be allowed to see what was collected.

If an investigator employed by a defense attorney found that the vehicle of a defendant in a criminal trial could be placed on the other side of town, at the exact time the state alleged they were committing a crime, how does that “cause harm”? Or, maybe you are referring to the documented arrival of a cheating spouse at a “Notell-Motel” at the exact time that they are supposed to be attending an AA meeting? Surely that would be used “against them”?

Suffice to say that there are consequences for people who make bad choices and then try to obscure the truth about their actions. But, that is no reason to eliminate access to the truth; especially when that information belongs to the public.

If the information has a greater risk of doing harm, if known, than value, if available, maybe the state does not need to be collecting it in the first place? If it is, in fact, more valuable to collect and store the information by the state — then the citizens of the state should be allowed access to it.