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FOI and Your Life

So what about my life is public information?

There are aspects of your life that are considered public and should continue to be public. They include:

Information on the taxable property you own.
It is important for local governments to have complete and accurate information on land ownership for zoning and property tax purposes, as well as to determine who qualifies for which local government services. This information also is important to real estate sales companies, title companies and others that deal in property transactions. It is a key to understanding land use patterns in a community and must be available to journalists or analysts for research purposes.

Driving records.
Operating a motor vehicle, whether a car, a delivery van or a “big rig” tractor-trailer, is not a right or a purely private activity. It’s a licensed privilege granted by a government entity for you to use public roads. Therefore, your record as a driver – violations, suspensions, license revocations and the like – should be available for inspection.

Your record as a driver is a public record, available to anyone who can identify you to the satisfaction of the records-keeper. (The requester must demonstrate that you are THE John Smith who lives on Morris Road in Jonesville and not some other John Smith in the same town.)

In the last decade, concern over privacy and personal safety has led to new federal and state laws that restrict who can see certain information contained in your motor vehicle records.

“Personal” information – your name, address, phone number, license number, even your photograph – usually may only be released to certain kinds of requesters. These include police (or other law enforcement personnel), your employer, insurance workers, private investigators and others.

Voter Registration Information.
The right to vote is one of our most cherished rights in the United States. Your actual vote is by secret ballot, of course. However, state and local governments keep records of who is registered to vote, in order to avoid fraudulent voting. Most states require registered voters to declare a political party affiliation to vote in partisan primary elections. Those lists are public and routinely are made available to political parties, among others.

Political Contributions.
In order to follow campaign finance laws, state and federal governments keep track of who gives money or services to which political candidates and parties. Thus, if you contribute to a political campaign, your contribution must be reported to the appropriate agency and kept on file for public inspection. Journalists, political organizations and watchdog groups make extensive use of these files.

Court Records.
Anytime you use the court system or appear in court, a record is made of your case and/or your appearance. This is true, whether you’re a defendant in a criminal case, a party in a civil action or a witness called to testify. Courts keep records of criminal, civil, domestic relations, juvenile and child abuse and neglect cases. In some states, information on marriages and divorces also may be kept in court files.

Criminal Justice Information.
Not all information on individuals with criminal records is public, but basic information about criminal charges is available at the court where the charges were filed and may be available from the police department that investigated the crime. Public access to “rap sheet” information listing all charges against an individual varies from state to state. The federal government and all 50 states have adopted “Megan’s Law,” named for the child victim of a sexual predator. That law requires police agencies to keep a list of convicted sexual offenders in their jurisdictions available to the public. Some laws require that neighbors or other interested parties be notified when a sexual predator is released or moves into a community. In some states that information is published on Web sites.

The United States rejects, on principle, the concept of secret courts and prisons. Your city or county jail should make its roster available for inspection at any time. Likewise, state and federal prisons should have records of who is incarcerated at any given time. At the federal level, prisoner information may be subject to the Privacy Act or to exemption under privacy (Exemption 6) provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. In recent months, civil rights watchdogs have criticized the Bush administration for not releasing the names of detainees in its anti-terror campaign on grounds that releasing their names would violate their privacy.

Licenses or permits.
Besides motor vehicles, there are other things we have or do that require government licenses or permits. You need a permit to build a house or an addition to one. Many professionals and tradespeople, including doctors, lawyers, hairdressers and plumbers, must have state or municipal licenses to practice. You need a license to operate a business and provide certain kinds of services. You need a license to go hunting and fishing. Your community may even require that you get a license for your pet. All of the information governments collect regarding licenses are public unless specifically exempted.

Government contracts and non-entitlement payments.
Because it’s important for governments at all levels to have accurate records of how they spend tax money, all expenditures must be accounted for and most are available for public scrutiny. While privacy laws prevent people from finding out how much you’ve collected in Social Security or welfare, most payments that government entities make to private businesses or individuals are considered public. This is true whether the payment is part of a highway construction contract, an agriculture support payment to a farmer or part of a purchase of products or services from the private sector. There are exceptions to this. Some areas of government spending, notably at the federal level, are considered confidential for reasons such as national security.

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