Police departments attempt to settle accident report confusion

  • The Peterborough Police Department, photographed on Monday, May 1, 2017. (Brandon Latham / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Brandon Latham—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/2/2017 6:49:59 AM

As state legislators try to clarify New Hampshire’s Driver Privacy Act, local police departments try to serve citizens best without putting themselves at risk of violation.

A May 2016 amendment to the 1996 law prohibited police departments from releasing official accident reports. In early April, departments began questioning what is permitted and had to decide what to release to motorists, the media and the public.

“The way it is written, only the Division of Motor Vehicles can release police reports,” Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard said. “It’s clear on what we can’t do, but it’s not clear on what we can do.”

Guinard said that Peterborough is releasing as much information as it thinks it can in the interest of driver convenience, but that it is less information and not as quickly as before.

Before the revision last year, which Guinard called, “long and complicated but left a lot of unanswered questions,” police departments were able to give reports, usually for a small fee, to motorists and insurance companies who walked in to ask for it. Now, that process must be handled at the state level by the Division of Motor Vehicles and can take up to several weeks. Without the reports, insurance companies are delayed in making rulings or payouts.

Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen said, “The biggest concern is I feel bad for the person who was in an accident who wants to get their car fixed or replaced, or maybe they got hurt and they’re trying to get their medical bills paid.”

Hautanen is a vice president at the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, and he was named as the point person for this issue. He called it a tension between the Driver Privacy Act and right to know laws. A memorandum he wrote in early April to try to advise departments influenced some chiefs to act more conservatively.

Among those is Tim Suokko, Dublin’s chief of police, who took the message to mean stop releasing information for fear of legal backlash.

“After an accident you come looking for information and we can’t really give it to you,” he said. “It’s not convenient for us, it’s not really convenient for anyone else.”

Hautanen said departments make their own decisions but that he advised that releasing names of motorists in accidents to the public was one of the items in question. That is why departments like Dublin have stopped publishing identifying details in the police activity and accident logs. Wilton, Peterborough, state troopers and others have continued to.

“We’re trying our best not to further burden the motorists, so that’s the approach I take,” Guinard said.

Of Wilton’s practice, Hautanen said, “I asked the Department of Safety and haven’t really gotten an answer on that, but we’re going to keep doing it because the state police keep doing it.”

In Concord today, May 2, lawmakers have a hearing scheduled to discuss an amendment to the revision that would clarify the parameters of what departments can and cannot release. Testimony for the amendment to House Bill 437 is being heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We’re having a public hearing so we can hear what’s going on and why we need to do something about it,” committee chair Sen. Sharon Carson, a Republican from Londonderry, said. “We’re trying to do what I believe will clarify the issue.”

A new paragraph in the law would explicitly allow local police departments to release any of the following: “A report prepared by the agency pursuant to RSA 264:25 [conduct after an accident law] to an operator, a passenger, any person injured, and agent or owner of property damaged in said accident; Information needed to identify drivers, vehicles, and owners of vehicles involved in an accident to fire department and emergency medical personnel; Copies of motor vehicle records as required by court rules and orders; The name, age, and town of residence of persons involved in accidents pursuant to RSA 91-A [freedom of information law].”

“I think it needs to be clarified quite frankly because it puts us under some criminal liability,” Hautanen said.

A clarification and loosening of the rules would not only help departments, but also drivers involved in accidents, according to Guinard, who said the DMV can be backed up about three months on report requests.

“If we get called out to a motor vehicle accident,” he said. “You have an expectation of the police department to release information.”


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