Editorial: Benson wrong to withhold shooting victim's vehicle and driving records

The Detroit News

Public information belongs to the public, and it shouldn't be up to an elected official such as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to arbitrarily deny citizens access to what is theirs.

Benson is worried that the driving or vehicle registration records of a 26-year-old Black man killed April 4 in a confrontation with a Grand Rapids policeman might be used in a way "that wrongly suggests he is culpable for being shot in the back of the head," according to a statement from her office.

At this point, neither Benson nor anyone else can say with legal certainty whether or not Patrick Lyoya bears responsibility for his own death. 

Yet Benson, a Democrat running for election this year, declared it her role to lock down information that might cast Lyoya in a negative light.

It's an egregious affront to the people's right to know. Benson is arbitrarily breaking with a long-standing department policy of releasing driving and vehicle records of Michigan residents on request. And she is apparently extending the change exclusively to all "victims of violence," though how that will be applied is left unclear.

It's particularly galling in light of the fact that the Secretary of State's office makes driver and vehicle records available for sale in bulk to third parties.

Benson appears to be pandering to her progressive base in setting herself up as a champion of Lyoya and others who die at the hands of police.

In doing so, she's way out of her lane. The criminal justice system will decide who bears responsibility for the killing. It's inappropriate for Benson to involve herself in that process by selectively withholding public records.

Benson, by law, is charged with registering and titling vehicles, regulating auto dealerships and repair shops and administering elections.. She is not in office to decide on a whim when the citizens of this state can see the records her office holds.

Central to the circumstances surrounding Lyoya's death is the vehicle he was driving. The officer making the stop indicated that the plates did not match the vehicle, which was the premise for the traffic stop. It's not yet clear whether that assertion was accurate; registration records may yield some clues.

The Detroit News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Lyoya's vehicle registration records and driving history. Such records are long established as being accessible under the act.

Late Friday, Benson released a second statement saying that the department had not changed policies regarding release and would make no changes until it completed a review. That's disingenuous. Even with her revised statement, the department did not immediately release records that, by past practice, would have been accessible immediately upon request. If nothing has changed, why was the information still withheld?

For Benson to change past practice in an apparent attempt to manipulate the public's perception of reality is an abuse of her office. It's also arrogant and disrespectful of the people she promised to serve.

The Michigan Press Association was alarmed by the wording of Benson's announcement, and what it might suggest about her commitment to transparency. 

"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," said Lisa McGraw, the association's public affairs manager.

Benson is not serving the public interest with this action. She's serving her own political ambitions.

The irony is she has joined other Democrats in declaring the upcoming election to be about the future of democracy.

But as the late federal Judge Damon Keith so eloquently said, "Democracies die behind closed doors."

Access to pubic information is a right, not a privilege. 

Elected officials who believe they can situationally parcel out that right, or deny it to serve their own purposes, are the true threat to our democracy.