S.D. Officials Question When Drunk Driving Records Become Public

May 9, 2007

State officials are not sure whether arrests for drunken driving are public records before charges are filed in court, Public Safety Secretary Tom Dravland told South Dakota lawmakers this week.

But the names of people arrested for drunken driving and other offenses are clearly public when charges are filed with a clerk of courts office, Dravland said. It could take a few days after an arrest for such cases to be filed in court, he said.

“Before that, to us it’s not clear if someone who has been simply arrested for an offense, if that information is public information,” Dravland told the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Dravland said he is not sure how clerks of court handle such information, so he is not sure how easy it would be for someone to use court records to find the names of people arrested at a sobriety checkpoint.

The panel had asked state officials to attend Monday’s meeting to answer questions about the accuracy of information released after 45 people were arrested at two sobriety checkpoints in Sioux Falls on Feb. 15 and Feb. 17.

The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls sought to follow those arrested through the court system, but the Highway Patrol said the names of those arrested were not available.

The Highway Patrol initially announced that 46 people had been arrested for drunken driving or other alcohol-related offenses, but it later said only 45 arrests were made.

Dravland said the Highway Patrol simply miscounted at first. The Highway Patrol arrested 40 people; local law enforcement agencies nabbed another five, he said.

Col. Daniel Mosteller, head of the Highway Patrol, said everyone in the agency has been reminded to make sure information released to the public is accurate.

Dravland said the Public Safety Department and the Highway Patrol want publicity on sobriety checkpoints because officials want to reduce the number of drunken drivers on the road.

A little more than 30 percent of South Dakota’s traffic fatalities now are alcohol-related, down from about half just a few years ago, Dravland said.

“When I’m driving with my family, the last thing I want to meet on the road is a drunken driver,” he said.

A coordinator at a sobriety checkpoint counts up the arrests at the end of an operation, but does not keep track of the names of those arrested, Dravland said. Some of the information on those citations could lead to identity theft, he said.

Sen. Jason Gant, R-Sioux Falls, asked whether Dravland would be interested in helping the Legislature change the law to clarify that tickets written by troopers are public information.

“We’re willing to look at anything you would like to look at that would help clarify things,” Dravland said.

However, Dravland said the Highway Patrol would have to spend a lot more money if it sets up a system to keep track of everyone who gets traffic tickets. In addition to those arrested for drunken driving, troopers issue another 60,000 or 70,000 tickets a year, he said. Probably another 80,000 warning tickets are issued each year, he said.

Sen. Nancy Turbak, D-Watertown, said she believes the Highway Patrol should be interested in keeping track of those arrested for drunken driving so it can determine whether those people are convicted.

Troopers keep track of some cases, and they testify in those cases where no plea bargain is reached, Dravland said.

Committee members said they are pleased the Highway Patrol has been cracking down on drunken driving. “Getting these guys off the road is the priority,” Gant said.

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