Balancing Individual Right to Privacy against Public’s Right to Know

March 15, 2018

If you grew up in Minnesota or one of its border states, you most certainly know the tragic story of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year old boy who was abducted from the small central Minnesota community of St. Joseph on October 22, 1989. Jacob’s disappearance remained a mystery until September 6, 2016 when Danny Heinrich confessed to the kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder of Jacob.

On November 21, 2016, Heinrich was sentenced. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the 20 year federal prison sentence was for one count of receiving child pornography. Under the terms of the plea deal, Heinrich was required to confess in court to the crimes he perpetrated against Jacob and lead police to his body, but he would not be prosecuted for Jacob’s murder and 24 other counts of pornography were dismissed.

With the criminal investigation into Jacob’s disappearance coming to a close after nearly three decades, the contents of the investigative file became eligible for possible release to the public subject to MN Statute § 13.82, subd. 7. The AP reported in March 2017 that Stearns County officials were in the “final stages” of preparing the file for release and had hopes of releasing the file “in the next month or two”.

On June 1, 2017, Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, filed suit against the Stearns County Sheriff, Don Gudmundson, Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, and the Stearns County Attorney. As reported by the St. Cloud Times, the Wetterlings are seeking to prevent the release of documents from the investigative file that contain highly personal information about the Wetterling family and community members.  The article goes on to say that according to the lawsuit, investigators had “gained information about the Wetterlings’ marriage, their children and inner workings of the family that shouldn’t be released to the public.” The Stearns County Attorney acknowledges in the article that “intensely personal information remains public under Minnesota statute.” As of June 3, 2017, the date of the St. Cloud Times report, Stearns County had already received “numerous” request from the media for the investigative file.

The lawsuit is still ongoing.  According to the docket, the most recent hearing occurred on February 2, 2018. Following that hearing, the Star Tribune reported that the Wetterlings are seeking to keep private 168 of the approximately 58,000 pages of the file.

According to a Star Tribune report, the Wetterling lawsuit has served as catalyst for a Minnesota senator to introduce a bill that would limit certain investigative records from being released to the public. On March 1, 2018, Minnesota State Senator Richard Cohen introduced the bill, SF 3137, that would allow inactive investigative data to be classified as private data, if, upon the request of the subject of the date, the law enforcement agency determines that the data was not relevant to the preparation or prosecution of the case for which the data was collected AND (1) the interest of the subject of the date I not wanting to release the date outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure; OR (2) releasing the date would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the subject of the data.  On March 8, 2018, the bill was referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Not a Westlaw subscriber? Sign-up for a free trial today.