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Milligan v. Ottumwa Police Department

Supreme Court of Iowa

January 3, 2020


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wapello County, Randy DeGeest, Judge.

         A city appeals a district court judgment ordering it to release to a citizen the identities of all individuals detected as speeding by its automated traffic enforcement program under the Iowa Open Records Act. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          David E. Schrock and Skylar J. Limkemann of Smith Mills Schrock Blades Monthei P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellants.

          Steven Gardner of Denefe, Gardner & Zingg, P.C., Ottumwa, for appellee.

          Brent L. Hinders, Eric M. Updegraff, and Alex E. Grasso of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa League of Cities.

          George F. Davison Jr., Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

          MANSFIELD, Justice.

         I. Introduction.

         This case requires us to interpret provisions of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2721-2725 (2012), and a corresponding Iowa state law, Iowa Code § 321.11 (2017), to decide whether they overcome the general rule of public disclosure set forth in the Iowa Open Records Act, id. §§ 22.1-.14.

         A city police sergeant was driving a patrol vehicle while off-duty. He received an automated traffic enforcement (ATE) citation for speeding from the city. As a private citizen, he then served a chapter 22 open records request. He specifically asked for the names of all persons who had and had not been issued ATE citations by the city after their vehicles were detected as speeding by an ATE camera.

         The city denied the request for the names, contending the DPPA and Iowa Code section 321.11 prohibited disclosure of the requested information. This citizen went to district court, and the court granted his petition for mandamus, ordered the city to disclose the names, and awarded attorney fees and expenses. The city appealed.

         On appeal, the city contends that the district court erred in ordering the production of records whose disclosure is prohibited by the DPPA and Iowa Code section 321.11. Additionally, the city contends the district court abused its discretion in awarding the citizen an unreasonable amount of attorney fees and costs.

         We agree with the city's first argument. Because the personal identifying information sought by this citizen comes from a vehicle registration and driver's license database, its public disclosure is presumptively prohibited under the DPPA and Iowa Code section 321.11. Although both statutes allow disclosure under certain limited circumstances, none of those circumstances apply here. Accordingly, we determine that the city did not commit an open records violation, and we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         II. Facts and Procedural Background.

         The facts in this case are largely undisputed. To enforce its speeding ordinances, the City of Ottumwa uses an unmanned ATE vehicle provided by RedSpeed, a third-party contractor. After the ATE vehicle detects and photographs a speeding vehicle including its license plate number, RedSpeed documents the violation, accesses the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) database to obtain the name of the registered owner of the vehicle, and uploads that information to an Internet portal. This enables a City police officer to review the materials and approve or reject the issuance of a citation. The reviewing officer also verifies the vehicle owner information. If the officer approves the issuance of a citation, RedSpeed relies on the registered owner's information obtained from NLETS to mail the owner a citation, including the photographs of the violation and information on the vehicle's speed.

         As noted, the City's ATE enforcement program is supported by use of the NLETS database. The NLETS database is a clearinghouse used nationally by law enforcement agencies. It contains motor vehicle, registration, and driver information submitted by state departments of motor vehicles.

         On the night of May 24, 2016, an ATE camera detected an off-duty patrol car going forty-one miles per hour in a twenty-five miles-per-hour zone. It was later determined that the driver was Mark Milligan, a police sergeant who worked for the City. After discovering that Milligan was the driver, the City forwarded the citation to him, although the City was of course the registered owner of the vehicle and the citation was actually issued to "Ottumwa PD."

         On August 1, Milligan-acting as a private citizen-submitted a written public records request to the City under Iowa Code chapter 22. He sought various records relating to the City's ATE program. Among other things, he requested the following:

The names of violators issued citations from the Ottumwa Police Department once the violation is reported by Red Speed to the City of Ottumwa[, ] Iowa.
The names of violators not issued citations after being reported as violations by Ottumwa Police Department.[1] Milligan later testified that he asked for this information "to see that the City of Ottumwa was enforcing their automated speed car enforcement fairly across the board between all citizens."

         On the advice of counsel, the City refused to release either set of requested names. The reason it gave for the denial was that "[i]nformation obtained by Red Speed is accessed through the NLETS portal and is confidential information under state and federal law." The City did, however, provide the other requested items.

         On September 12, Milligan filed in the Wapello County District Court a petition in equity and request for an order of mandamus pursuant to Iowa Code sections 22.5 and 22.10. He asserted that the City and its police department violated chapter 22 by withholding the information without "any lawful basis."[2] He asked the court to order the City to provide the withheld information and reimburse his costs and attorney fees.

         On February 9, 2017, the City filed a motion for summary judgment. It asserted it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Milligan's "requests seek confidential information that is prohibited from being disclosed under federal and state law"-meaning, the disclosure is prohibited by the DPPA, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2721 and 2725, and Iowa Code sections 22.7(66) and 321.11. The City also asked for summary judgment because Milligan had not provided any reasons for requesting the "confidential names of persons cited or not cited by the City."

         Following a hearing, the district court denied the City's motion. Later, the district court also denied a revised version of the City's motion for summary judgment.

         On November 2, the case was tried to the court. On November 28, the court issued its ruling. Implicitly, the court's ruling recognized that the DPPA and Iowa Code section 321.11 limit disclosure of documents that would otherwise have to be produced under the Open Records Act. However, the court reasoned that both the DPPA and Iowa Code section 321.11 "exempt information on driving violations from their general prohibition on personal information disclosure." It continued that "[t]he name[s] of speed regulation violators, which w[ere] requested, [are] information on driving violations, and [are] therefore, not confidential information under the DPPA or Iowa Code § 321.11." Accordingly, the court concluded the City had failed to comply with chapter 22 and ordered the City to provide Milligan the requested information. The court also announced it would award attorney fees and invited a fee application. On December 5, the City filed a timely notice of appeal from the district court's November 28 order and ruling.

         Two days later, on December 7, Milligan submitted an application for attorney fees and nontaxable expenses. See Iowa Code § 22.10(3)(c). The City resisted the application, challenging both the hours billed and the hourly rates. On February 22, 2018, the court granted Milligan's application in full, awarding $57, 315.75 in attorney fees and expenses. The City timely appealed this order as well. We consolidated the appeals and retained them.

         III. Standard of Review.

         We review the district court's interpretations of the DPPA, chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, and Iowa Code section 321.11 for correction of errors at law. Iowa Film Prod. Servs. v. Iowa Dep't of Econ. Dev., 818 N.W.2d 207, 217 (Iowa 2012); Press-Citizen Co. v. Univ. of Iowa, 817 N.W.2d 480, 484 (Iowa 2012).

         We review fact findings in chapter 22 actions, which are triable in equity, de novo. ACLU Found. of Iowa, Inc. v. Records Custodian, Atlantic Cmty. Sch. Dist., 818 N.W.2d 231, 232 (Iowa 2012); Press-Citizen Co., 817 N.W.2d at 484; Gannon v. Bd. of Regents, 692 N.W.2d 31, 37 (Iowa 2005).

         We review the amount of an award of attorney fees and costs for an abuse of discretion. City of Riverdale v. Diercks, 806 N.W.2d 643, 652 (Iowa 2011).

         IV. Did the District Court Err in Ordering the City to Produce the Names of Individual Vehicle Owners Requested by Milligan?

         We must determine whether the DPPA and its Iowa counterpart, Iowa Code section 321.11, prohibit the City from releasing the names of individuals who were and were not cited for ATE speeding violations. To resolve this issue, we need to review closely the exceptions found in the DPPA and section 321.11.

         A. The Iowa Open Records Act.

         At the outset, we acknowledge that the Open Records Act embodies "a liberal policy in favor of access to public records." Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids, 926 N.W.2d 222, 229 (Iowa 2019) (quoting Hall v. Broadlawns Med. Ctr., 811 N.W.2d 478, 485 (Iowa 2012)). The Act provides, "Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record or the information contained in a public record." Iowa Code § 22.2(1). Also, "[a] government body shall not prevent the examination or copying of a public record by contracting with a nongovernment body to perform any of its duties of functions." Id. § 22.2(2). Although the 2017 version of the Act contained sixty-eight enumerated exemptions from the disclosure requests, see Iowa Code § 22.7, they "are to be construed narrowly." Mitchell, 926 N.W.2d at 229 (quoting Iowa Film Prod. Servs., 818 N.W.2d at 219).

         Yet, this case does not concern one of those exemptions. Instead, our focus is on a federal statute and a state statute that independently prohibit the disclosure of certain government records under certain circumstances. The Federal DPPA, if it applies, would preempt any state law to the contrary, such as the Open Records Act. See Collier v. Dickinson, 477 F.3d 1306, 1312 & n.3 (11th Cir. 2007) (rejecting a qualified immunity defense because "[t]he law was clear at the relevant time that the DPPA preempted any conflicting state law that regulates the dissemination of motor vehicle record information"). In addition, specific state law prohibitions on disclosure located outside of chapter 22, such as Iowa Code section 321.11, can overcome the disclosure provisions in the Open Records Act. See Burton v. Univ. of Iowa Hosps. & Clinics, 566 N.W.2d 182, 189 (Iowa 1997) ("[C]hapter 22 does not trump or supersede specific statutes like sections 135.40-.42 on confidentiality of records.").

         B. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

         The DPPA "regulates the disclosure and resale of personal information contained in the records of state motor vehicle departments (DMVs)." Reno v. Condon, 528 U.S. 141, 143, 120 S.Ct. 666, 668 (2000); see also Locate.Plus.Com, Inc. v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 650 N.W.2d 609, 614 (Iowa 2002) ("Congress also sought to curb the common practice by many states of selling information in motor vehicle records to businesses, marketers, and individuals."). The genesis of the DPPA was the 1989 murder of a television actor at her home. Locate.Plus.Com, 650 N.W.2d at 614 n.2; Maureen Maginnis, Note, Maintaining the Privacy of Personal Information: The DPPA and the Right of Privacy, 51 S.C. L. Rev. 807, 809 (2000) [hereinafter Maginnis]. The actor was killed by a stalker who had hired a private detective to obtain her unlisted apartment address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Locate.Plus.Com, 650 N.W.2d at 614 n.2; Maginnis, 51 S.C. L. Rev. at 809; William J. Watkins, Jr., Note, The Driver's Privacy Protection Act: Congress Makes a Wrong Turn, 49 S.C. L. Rev. 983, 984 (1998) [hereinafter Watkins]. Congress enacted the DPPA, first, to address public safety concerns regarding stalkers', domestic abusers', and other criminals' easy access to the personal information in state department of transportation records. See, e.g., Locate.Plus.C ...

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