Appeals Court rules against media seeking access to police traffic accident reports

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  • A unanimous 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals panel has ruled against two North Carolina media outlets and a law firm seeking access to police records of traffic accidents.
  • The parent companies of WRAL television and the News and Observer had sued the state Highway Patrol, Department of Public Safety, Raleigh, Kannapolis, and Salisbury.
  • Defendants argued that a federal privacy statute blocked them from releasing the accident reports. The 4th Circuit panel agreed with a trial judge who ruled she had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

A federal Appeals Court has rejected a lawsuit from two major North Carolina media outlets and a law firm seeking access to traffic accident reports from the state Highway Patrol, Department of Public Safety, Raleigh, and two other cities.

The decision announced Monday affirms a trial court ruling from US District Judge Loretta Biggs. She determined that she had no subject matter jurisdiction to consider the case.

Capitol Broadcasting and the McClatchy Company, the parents of WRAL television and the News and Observer, joined the James Scott Farrin law firm to sue the two state agencies, Raleigh, Salisbury, and Kannapolis.

All five defendants had refused to release accident reports to the media outlets and law firm. The defendants cited a federal privacy statute that prohibits the reports’ release.

“At the heart of this declaratory judgment action is the interplay between a handful of state and federal statutory provisions,” wrote Judge Harvie Wilkinson for a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The North Carolina Public Records Act treats information compiled by state and local government agencies as “the property of the people,” Wilkinson noted.

“Now we move to the federal side of the ledger, where we encounter the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA),” the 4th Circuit opinion continued. “This statute forbids state DMVs from knowingly disclosing ‘personal information’ to any person or entity.”

“It is at the intersection of the aforementioned provisions that the parties collide,” Wilkinson wrote. “Plaintiffs are two media organizations and a law firm that wish to obtain accident reports to which they claim they are entitled to under state law. Defendants are three North Carolina municipalities and two state public safety agencies, all of which supervise and control law enforcement agencies. These entities have refused plaintiffs’ requests for the accident reports, claiming that the DPPA prohibits their release.”

The plaintiffs filed suit challenging the defendants’ “allegedly misplaced fear of DPPA liability.” Plaintiffs argued that access to the accident reports is “integral to the exercise of their First Amendment rights.”

“The entire complaint raises an entitlement premised wholly upon state law,” Wilkinson explained. “The federal DPPA becomes relevant only insofar as it is an anticipated defense to the claims rooted in the state NCPRA. Indeed, the entire purpose of including the DPPA in the complaint is to preemptively foreclose defendants’ argument that it prohibits release of the desired reports.”

Appellate judges rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to base the lawsuit on federal law. “The complaint proclaims that it ‘arises under the DPPA,’ but merely saying something does not make it true,” Wilkinson wrote. “There is no sense in which the complaint itself is grounded in the DPPA.”

“Plaintiffs do not claim any rights to release stemming from the DPPA, and they do not assert that the DPPA requires defendants to take any affirmative actions. Nor could they,” Wilkinson continued. “The DPPA expressly creates rights for one class of individuals only: those who have had their information impermissibly disclosed.”

“Plaintiffs clearly do not belong within this class,” the opinion continued. “They are seeking disclosure, the very opposite of claiming a breach of their privacy from a record’s release. They thus would not be eligible to sue under any federal private cause of action under the DPPA.”

“Rather, plaintiffs invoke the DPPA only to argue that it does not prohibit defendants from complying with state-law obligations, thereby attempting to cut off defendants’ anticipated line of argument before it can begin,” Wilkinson wrote. “Yet, it is well-settled that ‘a federal court does not have original jurisdiction over a case in which the complaint presents a state-law cause of action, but also asserts that federal law deprives the defendant of a defense he may raise.’”

“That is precisely the situation we have here. The complaint therefore fails to raise a federal question on its face,” appellate judges agreed. Wilkinson rejected the plaintiffs’ “jurisdictional gymnastics.”

The 4th Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that their claims “carry important First Amendment implications.” “This case is best seen as a discrete dispute about a single state law and how its provisions may or may not be preempted by a federal law,” Wilkinson wrote. “While the complaint makes extensive arguments across its nearly 100 paragraphs about why the DPPA does not foreclose public access to the accident reports it seeks, its mere two references to the First Amendment are highly general and simply tangential to the fundamental statutory interpretation questions in play.”

Wilkinson ended his opinion with a note of caution. “We think it appropriate in concluding to recognize the limited role of federal courts and the necessity of diligence in policing the outer limits of our power,” he wrote. “As the Supreme Court has cautioned, ‘[t]o sanction suits for declaratory relief as within the jurisdiction of the District Court merely because … artful pleading anticipates a defense based on federal law,’ would undermine ‘the whole trend of jurisdictional legislation by Congress, disregard the effective functioning of the federal judicial system and distort the limited procedural purpose of the Declaratory Judgment Act.’  The Court’s directive illustrates that judicial authority can earn respect in its restraint, as well as in its exercise.”

Judges Steven Agee and Henry Floyd joined Wilkinson’s opinion.