Earlier in March, police in Concord were called to a routine rollover accident that involved a 2002 Ford Explorer. According to Lt. Sean Ford, the driver of the Explorer, John Robinson, was not injured in the accident.
Robinson was given 2 motor vehicle summonses, the first was for a yellow-line violation and the second was for using a mobile device while he was driving. Robinson is scheduled to appear in Concord’s district court on April 16, where he will face a misdemeanor charge for negligent driving.
In contrast, a more serious accident happened several months earlier on Route 3A in Bow that the public still doesn’t know much about. At the time of the accident, Sgt. Art Merrigan only revealed to the public that a 53-year-old Hillsboro man died and his 52-year-old passenger was taken to the hospital after the motorcycle they were on was in an accident with another car on the afternoon of September 10.
On numerous occasions, The Monitor requested details about the fatal accident, but was given little information. According to the police department, they were reviewing what information could be made public under the state’s Driver Privacy Act. However, the department didn’t end up releasing the names of those involved in the accident, including the person who died and the driver of the car.
The two accident cases reveal ongoing disagreements about what kind of information police departments are allowed to make public under New Hampshire state law. Under the right-to-know law, journalists were able to review police accident reports for decades. But in April of 2017, the state’s Department of Safety began to advise police chiefs that they could no longer exchange some information. Instead, state motor vehicle officials would facilitate the exchange of this information.
In 1994, the Driver Privacy Act was enacted to set forth what information state motor vehicle departments can disclose. Both private attorneys and public information advocates argue that the Department of Safety’s message to police chiefs last year does not comply with the law.
Right-to-know attorneys say that traffic accident reports are generated by local police departments and not the DMV, making them public records held by police, not the state.
In an interview with The Monitor, attorney Greg Sullivan said, “My position all along has been that the Driver Privacy Act applies only to the records at the DMV, not at local police departments…Law enforcement records can be withheld from the public, but only under limited circumstances.”
Former Attorney General Peter Heed and ex-Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney initially told departments after the enactment of the Driver Privacy Act that they could release traffic accident reports to the public. Last year though, the attorney general’s office issued a new directive that cautioned police departments from releasing the reports.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Schlitzer said the state attorney general’s office would certainly meet with police to provide further guidance about information they’re allowed to release under the law. Because all right-to-know cases are considered on a case-by-case basis, how the office would advise law enforcement agencies to respond could not be summarized by Schlitzer.
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