By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Police departments across the state are wrestling with a ruling by the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles that despite past practice, local departments must no longer issue accident reports to the general public or insurance companies, but instead request copies of the reports from the Division of Motor Vehicles in Concord.
Several police chiefs in the Lakes Region have raised questions and expressed concerns about the change of policy, which they suggest could inconvenience residents and insurers seeking accident reports as well as limit information they are entitled to disclose to the media.
Officials of the Division of Motor Vehicles did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the issue.
The disclosure of motor vehicle records is governed by the so-called "Driver Privacy Act" (RSA 260:14) of 1996, which stipulates that "such records shall not be public records or subject or open to the inspection of any person" and may only be disclosed upon a formal request under conditions prescribed by the statute. The law is intended to forestall the widespread dissemination of the personal information contained in motor vehicle vehicle records and has been frequently amended to keep pace with the development of information technology and as the risks of identity theft have proliferated.
Nevertheless, apart from a person's photograph and Social Security number, records may be released to vehicle manufacturers to issue recalls or advisories bearing on vehicle performance or driver safety as well as to insurance companies. Likewise, records may be released to facilitate legal proceedings and vehicle financing, as well as for several commercial purposes with the express consent of the person whose records are requested. But, records released to serve these limited purposes may not be lawfully distributed further.
Violating the statute carries the risk of criminal and civil liability. Improper disclosure of records represents a misdemeanor while the sale of records is a felony. In addition the Division of Motor Vehicles or any aggrieved individual may bring a civil action against the offender.
Like many of his counterparts, Chief Dean Rondeau of Wolfeboro said that providing accident reports has been a traditional service his department provides to members of the community and their insurance carriers, sparing them the time, trouble and expense of requesting them from the Division of Motor Vehicles. The division charges a fee of $1 per page with a minimum of $5 while many local departments charge a small copying fee.
Chief Andy Shagoury of Tuftonboro, the 1st vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said this week that the change of policy raises a host of questions that remain unanswered for lack of a formal memorandum explaining the new procedure. For example, he said that its not clear whether the police are authorized to release accident reports to providers of emergency medical services, either local fire departments or private ambulance companies or whether if a vehicle damages public property, the report can be shared with municipal officials seeking to file an insurance claim.
"It's a big concern," he said. "Even if you make an honest mistake, you could be exposed to civil liability or criminal penalties." He said that the association has submitted a list of questions to the Division of Motor Vehicles seeking clarification of the new policy, but as yet has received no response.
The issue was a major topic of discussion when the Belknap County police chiefs met Friday, said Laconia Police Chief Chris Adams. He said that the department has routinely provided accident reports, charging a nominal fee for the cost of preparing a copy. However, he said that for the time being the department will direct anyone seeking a report to request it from Division of Motor Vehicles.
Like Shagoury, Adams suggested the change leads to unintended consequences. He said that officers have been advised not to ask drivers involved in collisions to share their personal information with one another. While most drivers would know to do so, he said that if one or both should refuse, the officer is left in an awkward position.
Rondeau shared these concerns. He said that he first learned of the change in procedure from one of his officers, who overhead a conversation about it at a training session. He questioned whether the Division of Motor Vehicles would have the capacity to handle the requests in a timely manner. Like other chiefs, he has posted a copy of the form for requesting an accident report from the Division of Motor Vehicles on the department's page on the town website.
Meanwhile, the change of policy has prompted chiefs to reconsider the information about accidents they release to the media. Rondeau said that because the Division of Motor Vehicles holds that vehicle records and the information they contain is the property of the agency, he has begun withholding the identity of drivers involved in traffic accidents.
"When I put out a press release," he explained, "it will contain only the information a witness to the accident could have observed. The make, model and color of the vehicles," he continued, "and what may have led to the accident, like weather conditions or excessive speed. But no names."
Both Adams and Shagoury said that they would follow suit, though Adams added that a driver who is arrested at the scene of an accident would be identified in a press release since the arrest would appear in the police log.
The rules accompanying the statute specify that the Division of Motor Vehicles "may disclose to the media for journalistic purposes, a person's name, age and motor vehicle offenses. Requests for such information shall be made to the commissioners, assistant commissioners or the director of motor vehicles."
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