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Wemhoff v. Dist. of Columbia

December 15, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-9616-03). (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued November 9, 2005

Before FARRELL and REID, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

This case involves an appeal from the denial of a request for information under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act ("the FOIA"), D.C. Code §§ 2-531 et seq.; the request concerned the identity and addresses of motorists who received traffic violation citations as a result of being photographed by a "red light camera" at a particular intersection. After the trial court dismissed his complaint with prejudice, appellant Daniel Wemhoff filed an appeal challenging the trial court's construction of various statutory provisions relating to his FOIA request. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

In July 2003, Mr. Wemhoff sent a letter to the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles ("the DMV") requesting certain information under the FOIA. Specifically, he asked for:

All records - with redactions as necessary . . . to protect personal identity - of all motorists who were "caught" by your photo/red light camera stationed on the H Street Bridge [in the Northeast quadrant of the District of Columbia] approaching the corner of North Capitol Street. This would include addresses of those issued automatic citations.

The DMV advised Mr. Wemhoff on September 17, 2003, that the "photo/red light cameras . . . are administered by the Metropolitan Police Department ('MPD')," but that, at any rate, the "driver record database does not include the location of a particular photo red light camera and thus is not searchable using the criterion . . . provided [by Mr. Wemhoff]." Furthermore, the DMV advised that even if it could provide the requested records, "the addresses would not be releasable under [the] FOIA" because they are "exempt[ed] from disclosure by . . . federal statute, the Driver's Privacy Protection Act ['the DPPA'], 18 USC 2721 et seq.," and by D.C. Code § 2-534 (2) (2001).

Subsequently, Mr. Wemhoff filed a complaint in the trial court on December 3, 2003, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief compelling the District to provide the information requested under the FOIA. Sometime around early July 2004, Mr. Wemhoff filed a motion for summary judgment, and on July 20, 2004, the District filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Wemhoff's complaint, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. Mr. Wemhoff submitted an affidavit stating that he requested the records in connection with a civil [class action] he had filed.*fn1 The trial court docketed an order on September 2, 2004, denying Mr. Wemhoff's motion for summary judgment and granting the District's motion to dismiss the complaint. Essentially, the trial court determined that the records sought were exempt from disclosure under the FOIA and the DPPA.*fn2 On September 28, 2004, the MPD sent Mr. Wemhoff a letter stating that "[t]he [D]department does not store the information [he] [had] requested," and further indicated that even if the information were available, it could not be released under the FOIA because, to do so, "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."


Mr. Wemhoff insists that he is entitled to the information requested. He contends that: "The District's position on disclosing 'personal information' of 'traffic violations' not only violates a specific provision of its own motor vehicle code [D.C. Code § 50-1301.05 (a) (2001)], mandating the information requested, but it likewise ignores the broad exceptions to the privacy exemptions, as enumerated under the DPPA. . . ." He specifically takes issue with the District's use of the "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" exception set forth in D.C. Code § 2-534 (2), and its reliance on the DPPA, 18 U.S.C. § 2721 (a)(1), with respect to the "exempt[ion] from disclosure by statute" provision of D.C. Code § 2-534 (6). Mr. Wemhoff also claims that, despite its assertion to the contrary, the District could retrieve the information he seeks through its contractor.

The District argues that, under § 2-534 (2), and in the alternative § 2-534 (6), it is precluded from releasing the names and addresses requested. Moreover, the District emphasizes that it does not have the information which Mr. Wemhoff seeks. And, the District maintains that D.C. Code § 50-1301.05 does not provide authority for the disclosure of the requested records.

Because this case involves a legal issue requiring the interpretation of various statutory provisions, our review is de novo. See Abadie v. District of Columbia Contract Appeals Bd., 843 A.2d 738, 741 (D.C. 2004) (citing Belcon, Inc. v. District of Columbia Water & Sewer Auth., 826 A.2d 380, 384 (D.C. 2003); In re Estate of Green, 816 A.2d 14, 16 (D.C. 2003)). "'Statutory construction is a holistic endeavor, and, at a minimum, must account for a statute's full text, language . . ., structure, and subject matter.'" District of Columbia v. Beretta, U.S.A., Corp., 872 A.2d 633, 652 (D.C. 2005) (en banc) (citing United States Nat'l Bank of Oregon v. Independent Ins. Agents of Am., 508 U.S. 439, 455 (1993) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). "'The text of an enactment is the primary source for determining its drafters' intent.'" 651 (citation omitted). "'In the ordinary case, absent any indication that doing so would frustrate [the legislature's] clear intention or yield patent absurdity, our obligation is to apply the statute as [the legislature] wrote it.'" Id. (citing Hubbard v. United States, 514 U.S. 695, 703 (1995)) (other citation omitted). "At the same time, we do not read statutory words in isolation; the language of surrounding and related paragraphs may be instrumental to understanding them." 652 (citation omitted). And, "'if divers statutes relate to the same thing, they ought all to be taken into consideration in construing any one of them.'" Luck v. District of Columbia, 617 A.2d 509, 514 (D.C. 1992) (citation omitted).

The District has a general policy favoring public access to and disclosure of its public records, but that policy is not without limitation. Its general statement of public policy specifies that: "[A]ll persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees." D.C. Code § 2-531 (2001); see The Washington Post Co. v. Minority Bus. Opportunity Comm'n, 560 A.2d 517, 521 (D.C. 1989) (citing Dunhill v. Director, District of Columbia Dept. of Transp., 416 A.2d 244, 247 n.5 (D.C. 1980) (other citations omitted)). Yet, while there is a policy of "expansion of public access," persons are not entitled to any and all information contained in public records, but only that relating to the affairs of government and official acts of officials and employees. Id. Moreover, the right of public access is limited by statutory exceptions which, consistent with the general public policy of access, must be read narrowly. See Newspapers, Inc. v. Metropolitan Police Dep't, 546 A.2d 990, 993 (D.C. 1988) (citing Dunhill, supra); see also D.C. Code ยง 2-532 (a) ("Any person has a right to ...

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