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St. Paul, Minn –Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided Tony Webster v Hennepin County, holding that the county had to provide data requested by Webster in 2015. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a brief supporting Webster, arguing that Hennepin County failed to respond in a timely manner to a data request and did not store data in a way that was easily accessible. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that the Hennepin County’s procedures do not assure a prompt response to data requests; the Court also let stand an administrative law judge’s finding that the County unlawfully refused Webster’s request for data.

ACLU-MN Executive Director John Gordon issued the following statement:

"We are delighted that the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the public’s right to get public documents from the government in a timely manner. Access to public documents is critical to ensure that our government remains open and accessible to all. 

The Court properly held that Hennepin County’s procedures for handling data failed to meet the standards of the state’s Data Practices Act. We hope that the County will act quickly to fix the way it does business. The Court also refused to adopt the County’s argument that using key words to search electronic documents is too burdensome. Its decision let stand the Court of Appeals’ decision that the County unlawfully refused to permit Webster to inspect and copy the data he asked for.  While the Court could have gone further and explicitly affirmed that ruling itself, it got to the right result:  Hennepin County needs to get its act together and do a lot better job in providing public data to the public.

Finally, we are pleased that the Court now recognizes that the government should store data so it is easily searchable by keyword. The public should be able to ask for and receive data by providing the government entity with key search terms."

Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey issued the following statement:

"We are pleased that the Minnesota Supreme Court has affirmed that state law enforcement officials violated the Data Practices Act when they failed to respond to a request for how they use biometric technology. Too often, these privacy-invasive technologies are adopted in secret and are used without public oversight. The Court’s decision will hopefully bring much-needed transparency to how Hennepin County law enforcement use biometric technology.

We also are pleased that the Court upheld the public’s right to access government officials’ email messages by letting stand a lower court’s decision that searching email accounts is not burdensome. Because public records are increasingly kept in digital form, it’s important that all transparency laws keep up with this trend. Minnesota’s Data Practices Act is ahead of other state’s public records laws on this issue, and we are happy that the Court reaffirmed that the public has a presumptive right to access government data."

The lawyers on the brief were Timothy Griffin and Thomas Burman of Stinson Leonard Street, Aaron Mackey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and John B. Gordon and Teresa Nelson of the ACLU-MN.

Link to the decision

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