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Privacy for Pets? Yes. Privacy for People? No.

Recent Texas Attorney General and U.S. Federal Court Rulings

David Bloys, News for Public Officials 

Two days after the Texas Attorney General's office rendered an opinion which stated that Hale County has no authority to block the bulk transfer of sensitive records for commercial use, the office rendered an opinion prohibiting Harris County Animal Control from transferring the same information. In Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Opinion No. GA-0367, dated October 14, 2005 the AG’s office stated Harris County is prohibited, by law,  from releasing the addresses, phone numbers, and names of pets owners to companies for commercial use.

 

Two days earlier, Assistant Attorney General Cindy Nettles responded to Hale County Request # 234155. Hale County had asked whether sensitive information must be reproduced in bulk, at cost, for San Jacinto Title Services. The information contained in Hale County real property records contains addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, driver’s license number, dates of birth, medical information, and financial information. Hale County sought to restrict the bulk release of this sensitive information. In addition, Hale County asked if San Jacinto Title Services would be required to agree to a non-disclosure agreement. Assistant AG Nettles opinion does not bode well for county clerks wanting to protect their citizens and their counties. On June 16, 2005, Assistant Attorney General Kay Hastings issued a similar letter in favor of Texas Document Imaging and Retrieval Systems, LLC.

 

Three days before the Assistant A.G. Hastings response, this issue was settled in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan in First American Title et al vs. Melissa Devaugh et al. The case asked the Federal Court to decide the matter of bulk transfer at cost of reproduction. Judge O’Meara’s decision, dated June 13, 2005, granted the counties authority over their records and disallowed the national title companies’ claims against the counties under the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Freedom of Information Act.. The ruling gives Michigan counties the authority to negotiate the terms of bulk transfer including fees and non-disclosure.
 

News for Public Officials notified the counties on our list of the federal decision and offered copies of the judge’s ruling. Assistant A.G. Hastings requested a copy the afternoon of June 16, 2005. We responded that evening by e-mail, too late for consideration. 

Assistant Attorney General Cindy Nettles does not mention the U.S. case in her letter and may not have known of the federal ruling.  The sad fact is, though, as a result of these rulings, Texas counties are forced to sell entire collections of sensitive information at a fraction of what they charge their own citizens. Citizens of Texas have less protection than Texas pets or Michigan citizens. 

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