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Media Placement Services, Inc. v. Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District I

April 24, 2018

Media Placement Services, Inc., Petitioner-Appellant,
Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Patrick Ferman, Administrator, Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, Respondents-Respondents.

          APPEAL from an order of the circuit court for Milwaukee County, No. 2014CV8930TIMOTHY M. WITKOWIAK, Judge. Affirmed.

          Before Brennan, P.J., Kessler and Brash, JJ.

          KESSLER, J.

         ¶1 Media Placement Services (Media Placement) appeals the summary judgment order dismissing its mandamus action to access free motor vehicle accident reports from the Department of Transportation (DOT) using the DOT's web portal. We affirm.


         ¶2 The following facts are not in dispute. Media Placement is a Louisiana-based company with an interest in motor vehicle accident data (accident reports) from the City of Milwaukee. For several years, Media Placement representatives would visit the Milwaukee Police Department's Third District Police Station, request accident reports from particular dates, and inspect those reports free of charge. In June 2013, however, the Milwaukee Police Department suspended the practice of allowing Media Placement to view unredacted accident reports, citing privacy concerns pursuant to the Federal Drivers Policy and Protection Act. Media Placement continued to request accident reports from the Milwaukee Police Department, but was ultimately informed that the DOT became the custodian of accident reports and that subsequent requests must be made through the DOT.

         ¶3 In August 2014, counsel for Media Placement submitted a written request to the DOT for City of Milwaukee accident reports from certain dates. Through phone calls and emails, the DOT informed Media Placement of its access options. The DOT offers the following options to requesters seeking accident reports:

• Online requests, through the DOT's website, for individual accident reports. The website requires requesters to know either an accident number, a document number, or both a driver's license number and accident date. A $5.00 furnishing fee, plus a $1.00 convenience fee, is required for each report.
• Written, email, or phone requests for accident reports in which requesters can use more general search criteria, such as "all accident reports" from a particular date or location. The DOT generates the data, and for a fee, provides the data to the requester when the data is available.
• A weekly subscription service, in which the DOT contracts with high-volume requesters to provide bulk weekly data from accident reports. The DOT charges a $250.00 weekly fee for the subscription service.

         ¶4 Media Placement filed the mandamus action underlying this appeal. As related to this appeal, Media Placement argued that the DOT "failed and [is] still failing to provide [Media Placement] with access for the purpose of inspection without charge to Milwaukee Police Department accident reports, " contrary to Wisconsin open records law.[1] The mandamus action also argued that the DOT is "not authorized to charge a fee of $6.00 to inspect [Milwaukee Police Department] accident reports online." Media Placement asked the circuit court to "compel[] [the DOT] to permit … [Media Placement] to inspect Wisconsin motor vehicle accident reports that originated in the City of Milwaukee upon request and without charge."

         ¶5 Both parties moved for summary judgment. Media Placement argued that the DOT unfairly limited the public's access to accident report data because requesters using the DOT website must know specific search criteria and that the DOT was not authorized to charge for access to accident reports.[2] The DOT countered that it did not limit the public's access to either individual or bulk accident reports because it provides multiple methods of access, including a weekly subscription service for high-volume requesters such as Media Placement. The DOT also argued that pursuant to Wis . Stat . § 343.24(2m) (2015-16), [3] it was authorized to charge a fee for online access to individual accident reports. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the DOT and denied Media Placement's motion. This appeal follows.


         ¶6 On appeal, Media Placement's arguments focus primarily on its assertions that the DOT improperly limits access to individual accident reports by requiring an online requester to know specific information and that the DOT is not authorized to charge for those reports. A breakdown of Media Placement's arguments, however, shows that Media Placement is actually challenging its inability to access individual accident reports: (1) in bulk, (2) online, (3) for free, and (4) using general search information such as dates and locations. In short, Media Placement wants access to high volumes of individual accident reports using the DOT's online database and does not want to pay for the reports. In asserting its arguments, Media Placement extensively discusses Wisconsin's open records law and challenges the applicability of Wis.Stat. § 343.24(2m)-the statute authorizing the DOT to charge a fee for furnishing certain motor vehicle records. We conclude that Media Placement is not entitled to free access to the DOT's database because both Wisconsin open records ...

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