Metro Transit must provide a bus passenger with disabilities and his attorney with access to data from a 2013 incident, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled August 24. The ruling is a win for bus passenger Robert Burks and the Minnesota Disability Law Center. The center and attorney Justin Page are assisting Burks in his quest to gain access to the data.
Burks is blind and has a complaint against Metro Transit that is based on access to a bus. He needs the data to validate his complaint. The bus on which the incident occurred is equipped with five cameras, to record activity with sound and images. It stores more than 300 hours of activity, which can be transferred to DVDs.
Legal action was filed against the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit. The high court ruled that under state law, a passenger may access the video recording of an incident on a public bus when he or she is an individual subject of the data. The court decision affirms earlier decisions by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Ramsey County District Court.
Page said the next step for his client will be to obtain and review the data. As Access Press went to press, Page and Burks were still waiting to conduct their review.
In the case the Minnesota Supreme Court was asked to determine whether, under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, a transit passenger has the right to access data in Metro Transit’s possession that depicts the passenger.
Burks had requested access to a recording of a verbal exchange he had with a Metro Transit bus driver. Burks had argued with the bus driver on November 15, 2013, after he had difficulty boarding a bus. Various objects were in Burks’ way when he was trying to get on board. Burks and the bus driver had an argument and the driver called Metro Transit police officers.
Two officers escorted Burks off of the bus. Burks wasn’t issued a ticket or charged with a crime. After a brief delay he was allowed to board the next bus along his route. He called the Metro Transit complaint line that same day and registered his concerns. Metro Transit never responded to that complaint.
In December 2013, Burks made a request for data of the incident. That request was denied by Metro Transit in January 2014. Metro Transit officials indicated they couldn’t release the data because it contained private personnel data about the driver.
Burks took his case to district court, then the court of appeals and then the state’s highest court. Each ruled that Burks is entitled to have the data. Minnesota Supreme Court judges said that Metro Transit, as a division of Metropolitan Council, must comply with the requirements of the Data Practices Act. “One requirement imposed by the Data Practices Act is that government entities, including Metro Transit, have a statutory obligation to provide copies of ‘private or public data upon request by the individual subject of the data,’” the ruling stated. “In addition to the duty imposed on the government entity to provide copies, the Data Practices Act also creates an explicit right of access in favor of the individual subject of the data.”
The same day as the Burks ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on a similar case between KSTP-TV and Metropolitan County and Metro Transit. KSTP-TV is seeking data from two incidents involving Metro Transit drivers and passengers, under the data practices act. Both incidents occurred in 2013. One was a bus crash and another was an altercation between a bus driver and a bicyclist.
KSTP-TV contends the data is public; Metro Transit contends the data is private employee data. An administrative law judge ruled that KSTP-TV should be able to see the data, under the data practices act. The court of appeals affirmed that decision.
But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed and remanded that decision, and sent the case back to the Office of Administrative Hearings for further proceedings. The high court ruled that data from public buses is “personnel data” under state law only if it is “maintained” exclusively because an individual subject of the data is a government employee. To determine whether particular data is “personnel data” under the data privacy act, a government entity must classify the data at the time a request for access to the data is made. The majority of judges indicated that because
once the data was downloaded and placed on DVDs as part of personnel investigations, it became private data.
One legal publication asked if the Minnesota Supreme Court had thrown the state’s freedom of information law under the bus. The issue is for whom the information is maintained and when the request was made.
In Burks’ case, because he requested the data and he is subject of the information, his request was upheld.