Lawmaker takes up fight by Wetterlings to limit file access

Published 7:45 pm Sunday, March 11, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota lawmaker is proposing a new limit on public access to police files in light of the legal battle by the family of a slain Minnesota boy whose case remained unsolved for 27 years.

Open records advocates worry that the bill would restrict access to files that have been open to the public for decades.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling want to prevent the release of 168 pages of the nearly 56,000 pages of documents related to the 1989 abduction of their son, 11-year-old Jacob. The case went unsolved until last year, when Danny Heinrich confessed to sexually assaulting and killing the boy.

Democratic Minnesota state Sen. Richard Cohen’s bill would allow people involved in criminal investigations to request that information about them be kept private if it is irrelevant to the preparation or prosecution of the case. Law enforcement would determine the relevance and weigh that request against the value of public disclosure, or decide whether releasing the information was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

“There’s a lot of private information in (case files) that has no relevance to an investigation,” Patty Wetterling said. “We need to be respectful of victims and also have an opportunity to have transparency. It’s a needed fix.”

Mark Anfinson, who is representing media organizations and others pushing for access to the Wetterling records, said he has worked with Cohen in the past and “the goal here is entirely legitimate.” But he fears it would end up blocking access to far more information than Cohen initially intended.

Anfinson said the bill’s language is too ambiguous about how and when the privacy exemption would apply. He believes law enforcement would err on the side of withholding records out of fear of being sued for disclosing information that should be private.

Cohen said the bill would strike the right balance between privacy and public access and would be “used sparingly” for lengthy investigations.