County protects privacy of accused at the peril of public records

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — As Paul Harvey used to say, “Here is a strange.”

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department has been cagey about a releasing information involving a disorderly conduct ticket reportedly issued to a Germantown teacher after she allegedly damaged political signs at the Jefferson County Republican Party tent. The incident, sources say, occurred nearly two weeks ago during the opening evening of the Jefferson County Fair.

An official with the Sheriff’s Department confirms the incident and tells Wisconsin Reporter the unidentified woman was issued a ticket, but that the department has not released the information publicly because no one has requested the information through an open records request.

REDACTED: The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department says it will black out all identifying information of the suspect in a political vandalism case. A legal expert says the county is begging for a lawsuit.

It wouldn’t matter, anyway. Jefferson County Chief Deputy Jeff Parker said when the incident report becomes public the department plans to redact any identifying information, including the woman’s name.

Such secrecy is part of the department’s official policy that one legal expert says could cost Jefferson County in court.

Political damage

Jefferson County GOP officials certainly have been curious about what has happened to the investigation in the nearly two weeks since the teacher allegedly stomped on Republican Party signs. They’ve effectively been told to buzz off, according to one Republican Party member.

“Every day after (the incident) we checked in with the Sheriff’s Department to see if they had any information. It was kind of, ‘No, don’t ask anymore. We’re not going to give that information, so don’t contact us anymore,’” said Gary Ellerman, chairman of the Jefferson County GOP.

That information, party members were told, is now “confidential.”

Ellerman first publicly discussed the incident with conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna just days after the incident allegedly occurred, on July 9.

He said at approximately 10:30 p.m., a couple hours after the Jefferson County Fair had closed for the day, the unidentified Germantown woman came through and destroyed signs around the party’s booth.

“I think 10 signs were knocked down,” Ellerman said. “Maybe it’s not surprising that the (Gov. Scott) Walker signs took the most brunt” of the destruction.

A Jefferson County woman, Ellerman said, watched the entire incident, following the Germantown teacher out and flagging down a Jefferson County deputy.

“The witness told the female deputy what happened,” Ellerman said. “At first the teacher denied it. Then she admitted it. Then she became proud of the fact that she did it.”

Ellerman said he spoke to the witness, whom he identified as Roxanne Stillman, and she gave him a full account of the incident. Wisconsin Reporter tried but could not reach Stillman for comment.

The investigating officer, Jefferson County Deputy Heather Larson, took the suspect and the witness to the sheriff’s headquarters at the fairgrounds, got everybody’s story and then issued a $200-plus disorderly conduct ticket, Ellerman said.

Larson stopped by the GOP booth the next morning and said she would not disclose the name of the individual accused of destroying the signs, but told party officials the individual was a teacher from Germantown. The deputy wanted to know how much damage had been done, and that the Jefferson County Republican Party could expect restitution, Ellerman said.

In total, it was about $40 in damage. Not much, but it was the principle of the thing, he said.

“Later that day, we contacted the sheriff’s department. They wouldn’t give us an incident report or any other information,” Ellerman said. “They said it was confidential, that the deputy hadn’t written up the report yet.”

Nearly two weeks later, still no word.

Closed records

An official with Jefferson County Sheriff Paul Milbrath confirmed the incident, and acknowledged that a disorderly conduct citation was issued to the Germantown teacher for allegedly stepping on and breaking political signs. But Wisconsin Reporter was told it would need to file an open records request to retrieve any more details.

Asked about the incident Monday, Larson told Wisconsin Reporter that she is “not at liberty to discuss anything.” She referred Wisconsin Reporter to the Jefferson County records division. An official there reiterated that the information could only be obtained through an open records request.

Jefferson County Chief Deputy Jeff Parker said if a citation was issued on July 9, “she (the accused) hasn’t had the opportunity to go through the formal process of making her initial appearance.”

But Cindy Hamre, deputy clerk at the Jefferson County Clerk of Circuit Courts, said the office normally would have the citation in its files by now. And the citation would be a matter of public record certainly in the clerk of courts’ system.

“Normally, it’s probably three to five days for them to come over,” Hamre said, noting that it may take longer if the ticket was hand-written or there were errors in the copy. “But a couple of weeks is long by any estimate.”

Hamre said there was no record of the citation in the court system as of Monday afternoon.

Asked about the delay, Parker said there is nothing peculiar about the timeline, that cases come in based on priorities. Sexual assaults and homicides certainly would take priority over a disorderly conduct citation, the chief deputy said. He could not say whether there had been any reported homicide or sexual assault incidents in the county during the past two weeks.

“Definitely do not be thinking this is some sort of cover up or conspiracy,” Parker said. “It’s a matter of one clerical secretary having an insurmountable amount of work to do and she’ll get to it when she gets to it.”

Later in the afternoon, Parker said the incident report may be made available on Tuesday, but, again, it would require an open records request to obtain any information. And, based on Jefferson County’s reading of a 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision, the Sheriff’s Department will be blacking out any identifying information related to the disorderly conduct case. The appeals court ruling involving a Palatine, Ill., case, found that a ticket on a windshield violated the driver’s personal information,

The Jefferson County sheriff in a memo dated July 2, 2013, advised that “many law enforcement agencies have had to significantly alter their procedures for complying with Wisconsin Open Records Law.”

Just following the law, Parker claimed. Except, many counties in Wisconsin have not interpreted the 7th Circuit’s ruling so narrowly, restricting basic information from public view.

The chief deputy told Wisconsin Reporter that the information released on the disorderly conduct allegations would include court date information so that, if reporters were so inclined, they could wait around the courtroom and see if a case involving allegations of destruction of political signs at the fair came through.

Tom Kamenick, associate counsel, at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, said Jefferson County’s strict interpretation of the7th Circuit’s ruling is the reading of “overcautious municipal lawyers.”

“There has been no case where an open records request was filled and wound up making liable the people who filed it,” Kamenick said, pointing to an open records case earlier this year in which a St. Croix County judge ruled in favor of the New Richmond News in an open records lawsuit against the city of New Richmond.

The city, like Jefferson County, contended basic information, including names, addresses and other identifiers in traffic and criminal cases had to be redacted from public records.

“The DPPA (Driver’s Privacy Protection Act) does not require the redaction of the information requested by (the newspaper) because such disclosure is permitted under 2721(b) and the Wisconsin Open Records Law requires the City to respond to records requests and provide such information in the performance of official duties by the City,” the judge wrote in his decision.

Kamenich said he had hoped after the New Richmond case government entities like Jefferson County would have figured out that they do not have to redact such information.

WILL is willing to help Jefferson County figure it out, however.

In an accompanying letter with Wisconsin Reporter’s open records request, the Milwaukee-based public interest law firm informs the Jefferson County officials the 7th Circuit’s ruling “does not permit law enforcement officials to redact identifying information from citations, incident reports, and the like in response to open records requests.”

To begin with, Kamenick writes, the appeals court case had nothing to do with records requests.

“In short, law enforcement agencies may not redact identifying information from citations, reports, and the like when responding to open records requests. The DPPA does not pre-empt state open records laws in this regard,” Kamenick concludes. “One case has already held a government entity liable for violating the open records law for making such redactions. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty would be happy to bring the second such case.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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