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Supreme Court to hear highway-records case

By The Associated Press

04.29.02

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said today it will decide whether states can keep secret information about traffic accidents collected as part of a federal highway safety law.

Justices will decide if a county in Washington state has to turn over records to families suing over serious accidents.

The ruling, expected next year, will affect governments in every state and determine if officials have to admit they knew an intersection might be dangerous. The records are being sought mainly as part of lawsuits over wrecks.

The Washington Supreme Court had said a federal law allowing the withholding of records is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court blocked the ruling earlier this year, until it could look at arguments from all sides.

Lawyers for Pierce County, Wash., said if the state ruling is not overturned, "the state's federal funding for elimination of roadway hazards and its citizens' safety both (will be) jeopardized, and bedrock principles of federalism dangerously undermined."

A dozen states, including Washington, argued that they need to be able to know that information collected about dangerous intersections will not be later used in lawsuits against them. If they don't, they may not gather the information, the court was told.

Information required by the Federal Highway Act "has spawned a kind of tort litigation against states that is enabled almost solely by this data," Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire told the Supreme Court in a separate filing.

The case involves two car accidents at different busy intersections in Pierce County, which is home to Tacoma. In one of the accidents, a woman was killed, and two sisters suffered brain injuries in the second.

Pierce County refused to release information on the intersections, as part of lawsuits over the wrecks, and said the federal law allowed them to withhold information on traffic accidents and complaints about the intersections.

The county had identified the fatal accident site as a dangerous intersection but had been turned down for federal funds to improve it. Funding was approved three weeks after the 1996 wreck.

Besides Washington, the other states urging the court to take the case were Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, Nebraska, Nevada, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Lawyers who want the information told the Supreme Court that some of the contested information was collected under state laws. They also said Washington voters have approved broad disclosure of government documents.

"This court need not concern itself with the wisdom of Washington state's policies of governmental liability and full disclosure of public records," the lawyers told the court in a filing.

The case is Pierce County v. Guillen.

Update

Government lawyers urge Supreme Court to keep traffic data secret
But attorney for family of woman killed in 1996 accident says it is 'completely unreasonable' for police reports, other information to be withheld.  11.05.02

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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