MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Justin Joy is serious. Soft-spoken. His demeanor's a little unusual, given his profession.
But what few words the attorney for Memphis Police Department and City of Memphis had to say before a federal judge Monday pretty much summed up the challenge the department's Central Records division faces.
"We're stuck between a rock and a hard place," Joy said.
MPD and the city are stuck between the public's right to access and the public's right to privacy as it relates to police auto accident reports, officially titled a "Tennessee Electronic Crash Report." The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have produced several investigations -- like this one or this one and this one -- in which nefarious telemarketers or "runners" culled accident reports so telemarketers for unethical medical clinics could solicit car accident victims for questionable medical treatment.
Jimmy Blount, a Collierville, Tennessee attorney, has filed a class action suit against MPD and Memphis to challenge once and for all who should have access to public accident reports. His suit cited the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act and state court precedent as prohibiting access to public police crash reports "...for the purposes of solicitation by unauthorized third parties."
"The problem is unauthorized access for illegitimate purposes," Blount said. "Scam artists who make telemarketing calls to accident victims and try to sell them to illegal and unethical attorneys and health care providers. They can only get that information from one place, and that's the Memphis Police Department, putting them in a stack in a room for just anyone to look at."
That room is MPD Central Records Document Review room, right off the elevators on the seventh floor of 170 N. Main Street. But you won't find a stack of accident reports there anymore. In partial response to our stories, MPD changed its policy this summer. Telemarketers or their "runners" now have to prove they're Tennessee residents. There's no limit to the number of accident reports they can review or purchase, but they must request specific reports -- requiring them to know crash victims' names, accident locations or dates in order to access the reports.
Still, Kevin Kerr, one of Blount's plaintiffs, was solicited by several telemarketers barely a day after his Memphis auto accident Oct. 17, months after MPD started implementing the new access policy.
"They're constantly calling and didn't give me time to heal or think about the situation," Kerr said.
"Everything needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis," said Nashville, Tennessee attorney Doug Pierce. Pierce represents Bradley Jetmore, a Nashville telemarketing business owner who sued the metropolitan government of Nashville and Davidson County and its police department over limiting his access to crash reports. Jetmore won his case, but metro Nashville appealed the decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Nashville. On Oct. 12, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's decision, essentially upholding that the metro government could not limit access to public accident reports either by number or by commercial purpose.
"Any system can be abused by anyone who has legitimate access to records.That doesn't mean it is being abused," said Pierce.
Neither Pierce, Blount nor Joy were aware that MPD had changed its access policy. U.S. District Court Judge John T. Fowlkes, Jr., advised them to craft a compromise that would comply with both the law and the public's interest. He set a deadline of Nov. 20 for them to submit that plan before he considers granting Blount's request for a restraining order on the release of the reports.