Who shot a county commissioner? It’s their little secret

Somebody shot a county commissioner of Meeker County and a local newspaper is running up against a law on data in Minnesota in its effort to find out who.

It was a hunting accident in early November, apparently, when Dale Fenrich was out hunting deer with persons unknown.

The Litchfield Independent Review newspaper says the county sheriff referred the case to neighboring Wright County because of a conflict of interest (the county board has control of the sheriff’s office), and a news release reveals that the shooting has been ruled an accident.

So, who shot the commish? Nobody will say, according to the newspaper.

In an interview last week, (Sheriff Brian)Cruze cited the Minnesota Data Practices Act, statute 13.82 “comprehensive law enforcement data,” as justification for withholding the identity.

The provision allows the release of identities of people named in incident reports, though provides some exceptions. Justifiable reasons for withholding a person’s identity include situations that might, for example, reveal the identity of a sexual assault victim, undercover law enforcement officer, juvenile offender or other protected classes.

Cruze declined to cite a more specific reason for withholding the likely shooter’s identity.

“If we gave you anything beyond that (statute 13.82), it would reveal information that by statute we can’t reveal,” Cruze said.

Cruze says he was advised by the state agency overseeing the state’s data practices statute that he shouldn’t release the information.

That’s not good enough for Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson.

“In my view, it’s not enough to simply cite section 13.82 as the basis for withholding the information. That section has 30 separate subdivisions covering a wide range of different kinds of data,” Anfinson stated in an email, “and therefore simply referring to 13.82 comes nowhere close to complying with the requirement of the (Data Practices Act) found in section 13.03, which states that when a request for access is denied, the agency ‘shall cite the specific statutory section’ supporting the denial.”

“Providing the specific subdivision or specific reason is above and beyond what’s required,” Stacie Christensen, director of the Information Policy Analysis Division told the paper.

So there are reasons why state-controlled information can’t be released, but the law allows the secret to the secret to stay secret.

There is reason involved here, though. Indicating that you’re witholding a name because they’re a juvenile, for example, might focus undue attention on a person’s son or daughter.

As for Fenrich, no hard feelings.

“It’s publicly awkward,” he told the Independent Review. “Between family and friends, we’re 100 percent OK.”

Try to remember all of this propriety the next time the cops turn the screws on someone who hasn’t been charged with a crime by releasing their name as a person of interest.

(h/t: Mike Worcester)