Records committee orders UHP to release accident victim's name

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 2:55 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A state police agency failed to persuade the State Records Committee on Thursday that it was justified in withholding the name of a teenage accident victim from the public.

The six-member committee voted unanimously to require the Utah Department of Public Safety to disclose the name of a 16-year-old boy who was critically injured when a car struck him on a rural Sanpete County road. The teenager had walked away from a group home and in the middle of the highway when he was hit after dark.

DPS attorney Kevin Bolander and DPS public information officer Dwayne Baird argued that releasing the name would be an unwarranted invasion of the boy's privacy. But committee members said they didn't hear any testimony to support that contention.

"I'm not following your reasoning. It's not making sense to me," committee member Holly Richardson said at one point.

DPS has 30 days to appeal the records committee decision to the district court. Bolander said officials will discuss that option.

The names of victims and arrestees in police and traffic accident reports are expressly classified as public under Utah law.

"I think the language is pretty clear. I can't foresee exceptions to it," said committee member Lex Hemphill.

But when the Utah Highway Patrol issued a press release providing details about the June 5 accident, including the driver's name, it omitted the teenager's name.

Christian Probasco, a reporter at the Sanpete Messenger, said he asked the UHP about the name and was told the agency had a new policy of not releasing the names of minors. The newspaper attempted to obtain the name through the state Government Records and Access Management Act but was denied. It then appealed to the records committee.

Bolander said DPS does not have a new policy regarding minors and that it decides to release their names based on the facts and circumstances of each case.

Sanpete Messenger publisher Suzanne Dean told the committee she suspected UHP did not release the name because the investigating officer is the business partner of the group home's owner, who is the mayor of Moroni.

Bolander said UHP doesn't have any knowledge of that and it wasn't a factor in the decision.

"This isn't like some cover-up for somebody," he said.

In documents presented to the committee, Bolander argued that the teenager's name had "minimal" news value.

"No government agency should be deciding what has news value for the public," Probasco said.

Sheryl Worsley, president of the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, told the committee that reporters can't do their jobs properly without such information. She cited a recent accident in Vernal in which 15-year-old Tommy Clark was killed by a driver who was texting. The tragedy led to a campaign against texting while driving.

"If you don't know the victim's name and make them relevant to the public, you don't have as impactful of a story, you cannot effect change," said Worsley, news director of KSL NewsRadio.

Baird said UHP sought to protect the teenager because there was some question as to whether he was at fault in the accident and may face criminal charges. In addition, he said the boy was in the custody of the Utah Department of Child and Family Services at the time.

When committee members asked Baird about the status of the accident investigation, he told them he didn't know.

"I think we need to know," committee member Ernest Rowley said.

Rowley wondered how someone being hit while walking in the middle of the road could raise to the level of a criminal charge. DPS, he said, presented no evidence of charges being filed.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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