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States seek to keep information about traffic accidents secret

©Associated Press
November 5, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Local and state governments should not have to give accident reports and other information collected about dangerous intersections to lawyers who plan to use the information against them in court, a government lawyer told the Supreme Court on Monday.

Daniel Hamilton, a prosecuting attorney for Pierce County, Wash., said states may be reluctant to gather information as part of a federal law to ensure highway safety if that data becomes the centerpiece of lawsuits involving traffic accidents.

Without a rule preventing release of the information, state participation in the federal highway safety program could be jeopardized, he said.

Hamilton's argument stems from a 1996 case in Pierce County in which officials refused to release records about a dangerous intersection to a man suing over an accident in which his wife was killed.

A federal law designed to encourage state and local governments to identify and fix unsafe road conditions provides that data gathered in that process cannot be used in state court proceedings.

Attorney Salvador Mungia, representing the family of Clementina Guillen-Alejandre, a Tacoma, Wash., woman killed in the 1996 accident, said it was "completely unreasonable" for officials to withhold police reports and other crucial information.

"State sovereignty isn't for the benefit of the states. It's for the benefit of the people," Mungia said.

Washington state's top court ruled last year that the federal law is unconstitutional since it tells state courts what evidence they may or may not admit. The U.S. Supreme Court later blocked that ruling until it could hear arguments.

Lawyers asked the Supreme Court on Monday to determine if the federal law is constitutional, and if so, whether local officials must admit they knew an intersection might be dangerous. The ruling, expected next year, could affect every state.

Under questioning from the nine justices Monday, Hamilton contended that any information gathered specifically for safety reasons should be exempt from disclosure in a court case.

Justice Stephen Breyer called that interpretation of the law "rather strained." Taken to its logical conclusion, Breyer said, it could prevent virtually all information about a traffic intersection from being used in court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that police reports are standard fare and questioned why they should be withheld.

In the case of a specific accident report, Hamilton replied, there is no reason. But officials are not obligated to list, for example, all accidents at a particular location, he said.

Paul Clement, a Justice Department lawyer, said Congress had the authority to prohibit release of traffic-safety information, since the federal government pays for safety programs.

Breyer appeared to agree, saying, "We have a federal interest to minimize accidents. So we need these reports."

But Mungia said Pierce County was trying to withhold even the names of witnesses and those involved in other accidents.

"They're putting (information about wrecks) into a black hole," he said.

Besides Washington, other states seeking to keep traffic information secret are Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Vermont.

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