Feb. 29, 2016 – One man’s criminal “alias” is another man’s legal name. But the state justice department doesn’t need to include “innocence letters” with requested criminal history reports that detail the other man’s crimes, a state appeals court has ruled.
Dennis Teague sued the attorney general and other DOJ officials, claiming they violate constitutional and statutory provisions each time they process and release a criminal history report tied to another man who has used “Dennis Teague” as an alias.
DOJ’s Crime Information Bureau maintains a database that is used to compile criminal history reports normally requested by employers or landlords doing due diligence on applicants. The database contains more than 1.3 million names. Each “master name” is associated with fingerprints, and alias names and alias birth dates are listed.
Criminal history requestors can request reports based on names. The DOJ releases criminal history reports that include alias names used by that person. The report contains a photograph corresponding to the person whose fingerprints were entered.
Teague has received a “letter of innocence” from DOJ, confirming he had no criminal history as of 2009. He can present the letter to anyone who has requested a criminal history report on his name. But Teague said that’s not enough to protect him.
He sued to stop DOJ from issuing criminal history reports that include his name as an alias, for requests about the other man who uses the alias, without reference to the innocence letter. His complaint was based on Wisconsin’s public records law, Wis. Stat. 19.70, which allows people to challenge public disclosures deemed inaccurate.
Teague also argued that releasing a crime history report with the alias, without noting the innocence letter tied to that name, violates his state and federal constitutional rights to equal protection of the laws, as well as substantive and procedural due process.
But in Teague v. Van Hollen, 2014AP2360 (Feb. 11, 2016), a three-judge panel for the District IV Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court, which dismissed Teague’s claims.
No Judicial Review, Information is Accurate
The appeals court panel agreed that a law enacted in 2003 precludes judicial review “when it comes to challenges to decisions by authorities under the public records law to release records, as opposed to decisions by authorities to withhold records.”
Wis. Stat. section 19.365(1) clearly states that “no person is entitled to judicial review of the decision of an authority to provide a requester with access to a record.” Thus, the panel said Teague could not challenge public disclosure criminal history reports.
“[W]e conclude that the terms of [the statute] are unambiguous in precluding judicial review of Teague’s public records law claim, and therefore we do not consult extrinsic sources of interpretation,” wrote Judge Brian Blanchard for the three-judge panel.
Teague noted that the public records law, section 19.70, still requires DOJ to fix inaccurate reports. But a 2-1 majority explained that the criminal history database is still accurate, even if an innocence letter tied to his name could help avoid confusion.
“The database accurately reflects that ATP is a felon who has used Teague’s name as an alias, does not state that Teague is a convicted felon, and does not identify a photograph of another person as being Teague,” Judge Blanchard noted.
“It seems highly unlikely that the legislature intended to set virtually no limit for the types of corrections and supplementations that persons identified in public records could compel authorities to make under the purported authority of § 19.70.”
No Equal Protection and Due Process Violations
Teague argued that DOJ violates his right to equal protection of the laws because he is treated differently than other people whose names are not tied to a criminal alias. He also says he is treated differently than others who have not been victims of identity theft.
Teague had not properly made the argument in circuit court, but the panel went on to explain why his equal protection argument would fail, even if properly framed.
The panel noted that the state has a governmental interest in providing accurate information to assist those who request criminal history reports, and the DOJ practice bears a rational relationship to that interest. That is, including the alias alerts to the possibility that a subject is using a fake name or trying to hide their criminal status.
Teague also argued that DOJ’s criminal database, from which reports are generated, violates his fundamental right to be disassociated from a criminal conviction record.
Again, the court noted that Teague failed to develop this substantive due process argument and declined to address it. Teague also argued that the DOJ violates his procedural due process rights with information that could harm his reputation.
“Teague did not show that he has been stigmatized in a manner that has altered or eliminated a right or status previously recognized under state law,” Blanchard wrote.
Even if the DOJ practices create “some burden” for him, an issue the panel assumed without deciding, Teague cited authority that undermined his argument, the panel noted.
Judge Paul Higginbotham wrote separately, differing with the majority on the reasons for rejecting Teague’s claim under Wis. Stat. section 19.70. He said Teague did not fully develop his argument and the majority should have rejected it without further analysis.
“I see no reason to spend more time on the topic than Teague apparently believes it deserves,” wrote Judge Higginbotham.