Pa. Press Objects to New State Police Limit on Public Records

By: (AP) Pennsylvania state police are tightening a regulation that bars troopers from identifying most juvenile victims of traffic accidents, saying "it's the right thing to do" rather than something required by the law.

A department-wide ban on releasing the identities of youths 17 and younger in car accidents, unless they are killed or are charged as adults with a criminal offense, has been in effect for years, said Trooper Linette Quinn, a state police spokeswoman.

The policy came under scrutiny after state police officials discovered last year that troopers in Tioga County were releasing the names of minors in traffic accidents.

Quinn said officials decided to clarify the regulation by rewriting it to say explicitly that such information cannot be released under most circumstances. As of yesterday, she said, the revisions were still in the works.

Quinn initially said the policy is based on the state Juvenile Act, which applies to youths 17 and younger who run afoul of the law. But after consulting with department lawyers, she acknowledged that the Juvenile Act does not apply to car crash victims who have done nothing wrong.

"It's a policy decision," Quinn said Wednesday. "It's the right thing to do, in regards to the protection of [a minor's] identity."

"If we're not going to release [a name] for one juvenile, we're not going to release it for all juveniles," she said.

Representatives of the Pennsylvania news media said the policy wrongly denies important information to the public.

"People might want to know if a child in the community was in accident," said Teri Henning, an attorney for Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "It's not just the news media, and it's not prurient interest. It's compassion. Some people want to help."

Henning said the policy is the tip of the iceberg in a long-running battle between newspapers and police agencies over what constitutes public information in the state. She also said the policy appears to conflict with legal precedent.

"We would disagree with their interpretation of the law," Henning said yesterday.

Len Ingrassia, president of Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors, said he expects the policy will be challenged in court.

"It's an alarming trend in government and another attempt to withhold vital information from our readership," said Ingrassia, editor of The Daily Item in Sunbury and The Danville News. "The public should be just as outraged over this as our state press organizations."

Similar bans on releasing minors' names are imposed on city police in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, areas that the state Department of Transportation says see the most traffic accidents in the state. In 2001, there were more than 25,000 crashes -- nearly 20 percent of the statewide total -- in the two cities.

Police spokesmen in both cities said they do not release information about minors in traffic crashes except under limited circumstances, such as when minors who are charged with adult crimes.

State police allow similar exceptions and release the names of juveniles who are killed in crashes once their families are notified, Quinn said.

While many police records are not public, Henning said state law specifies that police "blotters" -- logs of police activity that may include the arrested person's name -- are public information. In a 1997 ruling, she said, the state Commonwealth Court ruled that "incident reports" are the same as blotters and therefore also public records.

But the case law is not entirely settled. While the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association contends that incident reports are the initial reports filed by officers responding to accident, state law does not define the term, Henning said


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