It is impossible to say how deeply we disagree with the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in the suit over the release of records from Ottumwa’s ill-fated RedSpeed experiment.
When a former police officer sued for the names of the people who were caught speeding but not issued tickets by the system, he did so under Iowa’s open records law, which clearly applies. Even the court’s majority acknowledged that fact, only to toss out the inconvenience by saying that law isn’t the point.
We cannot disagree more. Neither could the two justices who filed a dissenting opinion in the case.
The court’s majority diverted into a flight of fancy in its opinion, saying that a ruling in favor of Milligan could result in the release of more than the names of people who were spared tickets, including the license plate numbers of those involved. The court speculated that the information “could be used to facilitate stalking — exactly the situation the [federal law] was enacted to prevent.”
The conclusion ignores the fact Milligan was not seeking such a combination. He was seeking the names of those who were caught breaking the law, caught violating the safety the city claimed the system was designed to enforce, but not issued tickets.
In doing so, the court ruled not on the facts of the case but on a much more nebulous claim that somehow, at some undefined future date, someone might use the ruling for an illegitimate purpose. While concerns about stalking are real, they were misapplied to twist away from the public’s right to know what government is doing in its name. Put simply, the court ruled not on fact, but on fear.
Justice David Wiggins’ dissent hammered that point home:
“I also emphasize that Milligan is asking for only the names of persons, not extraneous information such as license numbers, plate numbers, or addresses. The release of this limited information will not be contrary to the purpose of the DPPA, which is to address public safety concerns regarding stalkers’ and other criminals’ easy access to the personal information in IDOT records and to restrain the sale of that information to businesses and individuals.”
While the city may be relieved at the case’s outcome, it should realize that this is at best a pyrrhic victory. A ruling such as this cannot help but raise new questions and leave older ones surrounding the system’s use unresolved. That is not an outcome that boosts confidence in government.
This decision clears Iowa governments to enact systems similar to the one once used in Ottumwa knowing that they cannot be scrutinized if they choose to give certain people blanket exemptions from tickets the system issues. It creates a gaping hole in the state’s open records requirements, one the legislature must act to close.
Legislators have voiced discomfort with automated systems in the past. With the public now unable to monitor the use and abuse of such systems, it is time for the Iowa Legislature to formally ban such systems. A society such as ours cannot have a system so vulnerable to abuse, so open to misuse, without deeply undermining the public’s confidence.
It’s time for automated ticketing systems to end in Iowa.