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Lewis County denies request for Amish victim identification

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County has denied a formal request from Johnson Newspaper Corp. to release the identities of Amish victims of last month’s fatal car/buggy accident.

County Attorney Richard J. Graham, the county’s records access officer, last week denied a reporter’s Freedom of Information Law request for any documentation “that would provide the identities of a woman involved in the crash and her baby who died from injuries sustained in it.”

Undersheriff James M. Monnat has said the identities of the baby and her mother, who suffered a minor leg injury, would not be disclosed “because of the private lives of the Amish.”

In a written response, Mr. Graham indicated that “disclosure of the identity of accident victims constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and therefore is exempt from disclosure under Public Officers Law.”

But Mr. Graham’s ruling is incorrect, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

“Accident reports have been available in their entirety since the 1940s,” Mr. Freeman said, noting that one court decision even allowed the release of photographs of children involved in an accident as part of the report.

When asked if there were any religious provisions in the law, Mr. Freeman said, “Heck, no.”

Johnson Newspapers plans to appeal the denial, using information provided by Mr. Freeman.

Mr. Graham cited the 1985 Court of Appeals decision in Scott, Sardano & Pomeranz v. Records Access Officer of City of Syracuse, in which a law firm was denied access to names and addresses of accident victims because of its stated intent to solicit them by direct mail. The court ruled that accident reports may be not be withheld from the firm but that the names and addresses must be deleted prior to release.

That case, Mr. Freeman said, involved circumstances different from a newspaper’s request for such information.

“I think they misread the case,” he said.

Mr. Graham said Monday that county officials would consider the newspaper’s appeal. He declined extensive comment on the matter but did say that his response stemmed from “sound, legal research” and was an attempt to follow the law.

Robert D. Gorman, managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times, said Johnson Newspaper Corp. will go to court if necessary.

“In my 38 years in journalism, I have never heard a public official say the public doesn’t have a right to know the names of people whose deaths were investigated by the government,” Mr. Gorman said. “If this policy by Lewis County is upheld in the courts, it would be a precedent-setting decision for the entire country.”

A 9-month-old baby girl died at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, from injuries suffered when the buggy she was riding in was struck by a vehicle driven by Lacey E. Northrup, 27, Lowville. The accident happened just before 8 a.m. Nov. 20 on Route 12 near Vary Road in the town of Harrisburg. Lewis County Sheriff’s Department officials cited driver inattention as the primary cause, and Ms. Northrup was charged with following too closely and failing to exercise due caution when approaching a horse.

The FOIL request was lodged Nov. 27 in response to the department’s stance.

Lewis County earlier this year was on the losing end of lawsuit regarding a FOIL request.

State Supreme Court Judge Hugh A. Gilbert in February ruled the county should have provided past county Legislator Bruce R. Krug with information requested in May 2011, including a permit issued for a “special event” for ATVs; a list of businesses delinquent on hotel occupancy tax, with documentation on county actions to collect the money; and amounts of trail-permit fees and funding. Mr. Krug ultimately received the requested documents, albeit four days after the court-imposed deadline.

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