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FINDERS KEEPERS

Four years ago, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill designed to make it more difficult for stalkers to track down their prey. What the law may have done instead is give potential victims a false sense of security. Senate Bill 91-74, enacted in 1992, limits access to driver's license information,...
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Four years ago, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill designed to make it more difficult for stalkers to track down their prey. What the law may have done instead is give potential victims a false sense of security.

Senate Bill 91-74, enacted in 1992, limits access to driver's license information, vehicle registration lists and voting records. Individuals who declare they have a reason to fear that they or an immediate family member will be exposed to harassment or physical harm if their addresses are made public may ask that their home addresses remain confidential. That information is then made available only to a restricted number of entities, including government agencies, law enforcement officials, insurance companies and bill collectors.

Since the confidentiality law went into effect, 39 Denver residents, 28 of them women, have requested that their addresses be eliminated from voting records (most also asked for deletions on their driver's license and registration records). But the system is hardly foolproof--as a group of college journalism students discovered last fall.

That's when Jay Brodell, an assistant professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, gave students in his public records course an unusual assignment: tracking down the 39 individuals who'd requested confidentiality. Two weeks later the students had found addresses for 27 of them. Says Brodell, "If we'd really set our minds to it, we could have run down even more."

The students' biggest break came at the Denver Election Commission, which maintains records of Denver voters. By law, says executive director Arlys Ward, the city must maintain a list of all the individuals who've asked that access to their addresses be limited. (Officials with Denver Motor Vehicles and its state counterpart say they don't maintain such a list.) When Brodell's students asked for a copy of the list, Ward initially balked. She then asked the Denver city attorney's office for an opinion as to whether she was required to release it. Although both Ward and assistant city attorney Stan Sharoff say they can't recall details of the case, the students ultimately received a copy of the list, complete with the individuals' names, dates of birth and the precincts where each lives and votes.

In their search, the students used only public records available to anyone, poring over phone books, city directories, real estate records, court filings and other documents. They were told to conclude their searches when they'd found a home address they could be reasonably sure corresponded with the person on the list. That meant locating an individual with the same name and approximate age who lived in the precinct indicated on the voting records.

Among the individuals the students discovered had asked for anonymity were Swanee Hunt, U.S. ambassador to Austria; Denver County Court Judge Jacqueline St. Joan; two newspaper reporters (including one from Westword); two lawyers; two people who had obtained restraining orders against others; and a man who'd recently filed for bankruptcy.

It became clear to him, Brodell says, that individuals who ask for confidentiality "are not getting much, and they may think they are being protected more than they are."

According to Jan Mickish, executive director of the Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition, many battered women and men already realize that having addresses taken off voter rolls doesn't guarantee they'll remain secret--in part because the state's shield law doesn't require archival records containing the addresses to be destroyed by the Colorado Secretary of State's office.

"We can close a lot of doors of opportunity that perpetrators have access to," says Mickish. "But some of them will be able to find this information anyway because of their tenacity and the amount of money they're able to spend."

Mickish tells her clients to use a mail-drop address for voter's registration and driver's license information. News and magazine subscriptions should be sent to an alias, she says. And, whenever possible, phone service and utilities should be placed in the name of a roommate or a person who is willing to accept liability for the bill.

Brodell and other journalists, meanwhile, fear that because the shield law has proven ineffective, pressure will mount to enact more restrictive measures regarding public records.

Even now, media groups across the country are fighting attempts to enact strict privacy laws regarding driver's license and vehicle registration records. A provision in the recently passed federal crime bill actually requires all states to give individuals the option, as Colorado has, of restricting access to those public records. If the states don't comply, the bill requires that personal information, including names, addresses, photographs, social security numbers and telephone numbers, be kept confidential.

Brodell says legislators must walk a fine line between providing confidentiality and defeating the purpose of public records. "I have a great deal of sympathy for people who've got wackos out running after them," he says. "My suggestion is that they go to the X Ring (a Wheat Ridge firing range) and burn a couple boxes of .38s. That's my approach. Nothing's going to stop somebody who's really serious about going after you.

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