Iowa Supreme Court keeps private property owners removed from web search

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Iowa Judicial Branch Building, which houses the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. (WHO 13)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Property owners who ask to remove their names from online property searches to conceal their address may keep their names confidential under a ruling the Iowa Supreme Court published Friday.

Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board against Polk County Assessor Randy Ripperger in 2017 after Ripperger refused to release a list of people who had requested their names be removed from the county’s online search-by-name property search database. The list includes police officers, prosecutors, judges, and crime victims who want to make it harder for criminals or harassers to find out where they live. There are more than 3,500 property owners on the list.

Kauffman alleged that Ripperger was violating the state’s open records law by refusing to provide the list of names. Kauffman said in a hearing that he sought the disabled name list to determine who opts in to the policy and find out if developers, landlords, or slumlords are trying to keep their names from public disclosure.

The board, which under Iowa law is empowered to enforce the state’s open records law, found in 2018 that Ripperger had violated the law. An administrative law judge and a state court judge affirmed that conclusion and Ripperger appealed.

The court concluded that the list of names fits within an exception the legislature allowed in the state law. The open records law provides confidentiality for communications with a government body by private citizens outside of government who would not have made the communication if they had known it would be made public.

The court found the list was a public record but that it fit within the exception to disclosure as a communication intended to be confidential.

“Communications requesting removal from the assessor’s search-by-name function are useful to promote public safety, especially for those in risky occupations or victims of domestic abuse who want to make it harder for potential assailants to locate their home addresses. When, as here, the record custodian could reasonably believe disclosure of the list would deter such communications, that determination should be upheld, not second-guessed, even if others could reasonably disagree with the custodian,” the court said.

The court sent the case back to the board to determine who falls within the meaning of the law as being “outside of government” for a determination about whether some names may not fit the exception to the law.

“We’re looking at the ruling and will talk to IPIB about next steps,” said Lynn Hicks, a spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represented the board.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote the opinion, which was supported by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Dana Oxley. Three justices did not consider the case and Justice Edward Mansfield disagreed.

He said in a dissenting opinion that the 2012 law creating the board gives it the authority to interpret the open records law and the court should give deference to that authority. He said, citing language from the open records law, that “free and open examination of public records is generally in the public interest even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.”

Ripperger said the assessor’s office will continue to make individual real estate records and assessed values available for inspection at its office during business hours in compliance with Iowa law.

“The assessor’s office continues to believe this is an issue of public safety especially for victims, witnesses, and our law enforcement community,” he said.

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