N.H. Lawmakers Look to Undo New Policy on Accident Reports

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2017 12:14:43 AM
Modified: 5/2/2017 12:14:46 AM

West Lebanon — The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up an amendment today that would address problems created by a new interpretation of an existing state law that is forcing some residents to wait longer to obtain motor vehicle accident reports.

Meanwhile, Upper Valley police chiefs are responding to the problem in different ways.

At a New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police meeting last month, law enforcement leaders were advised to stop the long-standing practice of providing the public with copies of accident reports, and to instead refer requests for the documents to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Reports that the DMV is struggling to work through a backlog of records has prompted concerns that drivers will encounter delays in processing insurance claims because of the policy change .

The Driver Privacy Act establishes that most motor vehicle records are confidential, but accident reports are deemed a public record and are subject to disclosure under RSA 91-A, the state’s open record law.

Shortly after that April 11 meeting, an amendment was proposed in the state Senate that would override the new interpretation of the state’s Driver Privacy Act, which is now being interpreted as designating the DMV as the only agency that can legally disclose accident report information.

Both Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis and Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said they aren’t sure where the push to change the accident report policy came from, and each is proceeding differently.

Dennis, who attended the April meeting, said he is erring on the side of caution and has been referring people to the DMV since April 14.

“(Those at the meeting) were strongly recommending that law enforcement agencies not disseminate accident reports,” Dennis said.

Mello, who didn’t attend the meeting, said he wants more information before he changes the practice of providing the reports.

“Until I get some substantive explanation of why the interpretation has changed, or hear from the Attorney General’s Office ... I am going to keep doing business the way we have been doing business,” Mello said.

The Attorney General’s Office previously issued a memorandum of understanding saying it was OK for chiefs to release that information, Mello said.

However, late last year, the Attorney General’s Office determined that the memorandum conflicted with the Driver Privacy Act, which led the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Safety to reach out to chiefs, according to the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

“That presents a serious problem for individuals, who now have to deal with the state rather than their local police department; for police departments, which are prevented from helping their citizens; and for (the) DMV, which now has many more requests to handle,” the municipal association wrote in an April 28 legislative bulletin.

The amendment to HB 437, which is a bill dealing with police jurisdiction, would explicitly grant police chiefs the authority to release accident reports.

“In essence, it merely amends the law to conform to the practice that police departments have followed, with the state’s blessing and without any problems, for many years,” the municipal association wrote.

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she supports the amendment. Her committee will consider the proposed change this morning at 9:30.

“One of the main things I have heard about it is people are thinking it’s taking too long to get their accident reports,” Hennessey said, noting insurance companies usually need the reports in a timely fashion. “It didn’t make any sense to me that they were changing that.”

In response to an email request for an interview, DMV spokesman Larry Crowe wrote: “The Department of Safety is currently working with (the) Attorney General’s Office on resolving the issue of the interpretation of the Driver Privacy Act and providing guidance to police departments.”

Crowe didn’t respond to a follow-up question.

A message left at the Attorney General’s Office wasn’t returned on Monday.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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