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The state sent warning letters to thousands of people, but it won’t tell us who got them

Post by News Tribune Staff on April 18, 2008 at 5:00 am with No Comments »
April 18, 2008 5:00 am

Last year, the state Department of Ecology sent warning letters (it calls them “education” letters) to some 20,000 people.

But the department refuses to give us the list of who got those education letters. That doesn’t seem right, does it?

Here’s the issue: The Department of Ecology encourages the public to report people who litter. You may have seen the ads promoting the “Litter And It Will Hurt” campaign. You can call a hotline – 866-LITTER-1 (548-8371) – or fill out a form on the agency’s Web site. Basically, if you see someone toss a cigarette butt (or anything else) out of a window, you note the vehicle license plate, description of the vehicle, date and time and location.

The state can’t issue a citation since a cop didn’t see it. But Ecology has an arrangement with another state agency, the Department of Licensing, to identify the owner of each license plate that’s reported. Then Ecology mails that person a warning a letter that says, in effect, “a fellow citizen saw someone throw litter from a vehicle registered to you; if you’re ever caught in the act, you’ll pay a $1,025 fine.”

We believe the list of people who get that warning letter from the state should be a matter of public record. The state, after all, has taken an action, even though it’s a warning and not an actual citation.

But Ecology won’t give us the names. The agency’s public disclosure officer discussed my request with two assistant attorneys general who represent the agency, and they decided that the information is protected by the federal driver privacy law.

Here’s what Ecology told us in response to our request:

RCW 42.56.070(1) requires disclosure of all public records “unless the record falls within the specific exemptions of subsection (6) of this section, this chapter, or other statute which exempts or prohibits disclosure of specific information or records.” In this case, Ecology is required to withhold the information you have requested because the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act (DPPA, found at 18 USC Chapter 123) prohibits disclosure of that information.

As you know, the littering letters are based on license plate numbers supplied to Ecology in citizen complaints. Ecology has a contract with the Department of Licensing that allows Ecology to use the license plate numbers to obtain the names and addresses of vehicle owners. Section 2721 of the Driver Privacy Protection Act states: “A State department of motor vehicles, and any officer, employee, or contractor thereof, shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available to any person or entity:

(1) Personal information, as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2725(3)…
” Section 2725(3) defines personal information to include names and addresses of vehicle owners.

Instead of the list of names, the Department of Ecology offered to provide statistical information. For example, the agency can tell us how many letters it sent out during a particular month.

That’s not good enough. We can find out who got traffic tickets on our roads and highways. We can find out who crossed the Narrows bridge without paying a toll. We can find out who got nabbed by a red-light camera at an intersection. If police issue a written warning to someone, that information is based on driver’s license information, and it becomes public because of the action taken.

We should be able to find out who has been the subject of littering complaints.

As for the contract that Ecology signed with Licensing, that’s irrelevant. An agency can’t promise another agency to keep something secret if the information is public.

Update: Here’s a copy of the education letter.

We’re still working to get the list. I’ll keep you posted.

Open Government
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