Secretary of State Benson walks back statement on limiting access to driver records

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office announced Friday afternoon it would no longer release to media the driving records of "victims of violence," including Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man shot by a Grand Rapids police officer during a traffic stop April 4. 

But within seven hours, Benson walked back the statement, saying in a series of tweets that there was no policy switch and there were no changes "to media or public access to such data."

The announcement earlier Friday broke with the office's past practice and prompted concerns about whether public access to government information was being restricted. The Michigan Press Association had "grave concerns about the way this is worded," said Lisa McGraw, the group's public affairs manager.

Patrick Lyoya

"The best interest of the public at this point is to have the most transparency possible, and that would include the records being discussed here," McGraw said. 

In a statement at 2:36 p.m. Friday, the Department of State said it had released Lyoya's records to three media outlets but would "no longer provide the driving record and personal information of Mr. Lyoya to the media."

The government agency argued the information was "irrelevant" and was used in a way "that wrongly suggests he is culpable for being shot in the back of the head."

It was not immediately clear how the department planned to discern who qualified as a victim or how the initial directive complied with Michigan open records policies. 

Later Friday evening, at about 9:30 p.m., Benson said her department was reviewing the manner in which it provides the driver records of any Michigan resident to third parties to ensure it balances "the critical importance of government transparency and access to information with the need to protect the privacy of Michiganders."

"Earlier today the Michigan Department of State issued a statement regarding the release of driver records and other personal information to the media that suggested a change in policy," Benson said. "There is no change in policy at this time."

Michigan's Freedom of Information Act says all persons "are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees."

The law provides an exemption for information that constitutes "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." But many details of a driving record are available through courts and other government agencies.

In addition, the Michigan Department of State sells specific driver and vehicle data in bulk to commercial customers, government agencies and individuals, according to its website. Benson's website lists news reporting as a permissible purpose for purchasing lists of records from driver and vehicle files. The website notes the information can be requested "for use by a news medium in the preparation and dissemination of a report related in part or in whole to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety."

The Department of State on Friday declined an informal email request from The Detroit News for Lyoya’s vehicle registration and driving record by replying with a copy of Benson’s statement. The News also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on Friday for Lyoya’s driving record and vehicle registration information; the agency has five days to respond.

The department had not provided the information to The News by 9:37 p.m. Friday.

As of Friday afternoon, Benson's website still had detailed instructions regarding how someone could request the "driving and vehicle records belonging to another person" or the requester's own records online, by mail or at a branch office. There were also instructions on how to read a driving or vehicle record.

Any request for revisions to the policy would go to the GOP-led Legislature, which has frequently clashed with the Democratic secretary of state.

In its statement Friday, the department also condemned Lyoya's killing.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

cmauger@detroitnews.com