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    State grand jury suggests reversal of records law

    The statewide panel comes to that conclusion after investigating identity theft. One critic calls it "catastrophic.''

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 22, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- For more than a century, Florida law has presumed that all records are open to public scrutiny.

    If you wanted something closed, you had to get lawmakers to pass a law creating a specific exemption.

    Now, a statewide grand jury is suggesting that the law be reversed and that all records be closed unless there is a specific reason to open them.

    The change would strike at the heart of the state's national reputation for openness in government.

    "For a grand jury to recommend this, it's a major shift, a catastrophic earth-shattering shift that goes against 100 years of public policy," said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit watchdog for open government in Florida.

    That recommendation was just one of the ways suggested to combat identity theft, which costs $2.5-billion nationwide each year and will skyrocket to $8-billion by 2005.

    The grand jury, which spent six months investigating, charged 33 people with identify-theft crimes and racketeering, organized fraud, grand theft and money laundering.

    "Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation," Statewide Prosecutor Melanie Ann Hines said. "It is also one of the costliest for both individuals whose identities are stolen and businesses that are defrauded. Individual victims are especially hard hit because their losses include cash, credit ratings and peace of mind."

    Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the grand jury report probably will make it easier for legislators to pass bills limiting the public's access to government records and meetings this Legislative session, which begins today.

    But Gelber said they should proceed with caution.

    "Florida's Constitution demands that we carve carefully and not with a chain saw," he said. "I wouldn't want us to put the records law on its head."

    The grand jury study began months before Sept. 11, but its purpose was further emphasized by the terrorist attacks. At least 13 of the 19 terrorists involved in attacks had Florida ID cards or driving permits.

    "I think (the report) raises legitimate issues," Gelber said. "But I think that fixing the problem is a bit more complicated. It might be a bit overbroad."

    The most controversial suggestion in the report would be to reverse the open records law to keep as much personal information about Florida residents out of the public domain in the first place.

    "Private information collected from citizens should be presumed confidential and non-disclosable unless there is a statutory ground for its release," the study said. "We are not convinced doing so would violate the spirit and intent of the First Amendment."

    Other recommendations include:

    Exempting from public records personal information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, driver's license numbers and phone numbers.

    Withholding personal information at driver's license offices unless someone specifically asks for their own information to be released.

    Administering more secure ways, including fingerprinting, to renew drivers' licenses.

    Prohibiting the financial industry from selling personal information without a customer's permission.

    Better regulating private driving schools and commercial driver's license schools.

    Having government and businesses take in less personal information. For example, health clubs and video rental stores should not require Social Security numbers on applications.

    "We do not suggest that government should withhold information that its citizens need to ensure that government carries out its role in a fair and efficient manner," the report said. "However, there is a vast difference between information documenting what the government is doing on the one hand, and private and personal information that government has collected from its citizens for a specific and limited purpose on the other."

    So far, nearly 90 bills have been proposed by legislators claiming to be fighting terrorism or identity theft.

    "Identity theft is a problem, but we don't have to offend the Constitution," Petersen said. "We should prosecute the criminal. I think we've stepped over the line."

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