LANSING — The Michigan Department of State said Friday it would no longer release driving records for victims of violence, but Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson reversed the policy change hours later.
“There is no policy change at this time,” Benson said in a press release later Friday.
“The department is currently reviewing how it provides any Michigan resident’s driver abstract to third parties to ensure that we balance the critical importance of government transparency and access to information with the need to protect the privacy of Michiganders.”
But while the review is ongoing, “there will be no change to our current policy, or to media or public access to this data.”
The previous announcement drew strong reactions and criticism from First Amendment supporters.
Driving records and other motor vehicle records are routinely and promptly obtained by members of the news media and members of certain other industries, such as insurance companies. But Tracy Wimmer, spokeswoman for the department, said the state has discretion and the law says it “may release” such information, not that it must.
In an unsigned press release issued earlier Friday, the State Department, led by Benson, said its sudden change in policy was linked to the police killing in Grand Rapids last week of Patrick Lyoya, a black man. 26-year-old unarmed during a traffic stop. The police shooting is being investigated by the Michigan State Police.
The statement said the state agency provided Lyoya’s driving record to three unidentified media outlets “before acknowledging that it was included as an irrelevant detail that falsely suggests he was guilty of receiving shot in the back of the neck by a Grand Rapids police officer.”
Department officials would not say whether the Free Press, which obtained the information and reported only that Lyoya’s license had been revoked, was one of the outlets that prompted the policy change.
After:Grand Rapids police release video of officer fatally shooting Patrick Lyoya
After:Patrick Lyoya escaped violence and persecution in Congo to die in Michigan
The department “condemns the killing of Patrick Lyoya” and “will no longer provide Mr. Lyoya’s driving record and personal information to the media, nor will it provide the media with such records and information of other victims of violence,” it said. the statement, which was later rescinded.
Detroit Free Press editor Peter Bhatia said obtaining driving records is “standard journalistic practice and a long-standing service provided by the Office of the Secretary of State for the Media.” Bhatia said he understood Free Press reporting was partly the cause of the press release.
“While we recognize that some may view the release of this information as inflammatory and cite news reports after police killings of other black men, we viewed the license revocation as important context given the footage. events in Grand Rapids and that the encounter between Lyoya and the officer quickly deteriorated after the officer requested Lyoya’s license. Our intent was purely journalistic,” Bhatia said.
“In situations like this, we are extremely careful to provide information on everyone involved in the context and at the appropriate time in the development of a case. We are not rushing to publish as we may have some details first.”
Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, said she was “seriously concerned” about any state agency withholding or releasing information based on how that agency thinks the information is going to be used.
“It goes against the intent of the law,” she said. “At what point does this allow officials to protect themselves?”
In the specific case of the fatal Lyoya shooting, “it’s in the public interest to have as much transparency as possible,” McGraw said.
Free Press legal counsel Herschel Fink said the policy announced Friday would set a dangerous precedent.
“It’s censorship, pure and simple. It is not the role of a secretary of state to impose his political judgment on the information that the public is entitled to have concerning the investigations into possible crimes. This is the function of law enforcement and prosecutors, and, if necessary, courts interpreting public records laws.”
In the previous statement, the State Department called on state lawmakers to “strengthen the law to demonstrate that they value the privacy of Michiganders.” In the meantime, it said it would continue to review and revise the policies under which it provides “any Michigan resident’s personal information to third parties.”
Wimmer said that because the department has discretion over what information it releases and under what circumstances, there would likely be longer conversations to assess the purpose of the requests before the information is released.
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