In State ex rel. Patterson v. Ayers (1960), 171 Ohio St. 369, 14 O.O.2d 116, 171 N.E.2d 508, the relator sought a writ of mandamus compelling respondent, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, to permit relator "access to and inspection of the records pertaining to the registration number of a certain motor vehicle."Summary of this case from State ex Rel. Strothers v. Fuerst
Decided December 21, 1960.
Public records — Right to inspect — Duty of custodian — Registration and record of motor vehicles — Right to inspect — Duty of Registrar of Motor Vehicles — Mandamus.
1. Generally, those records in the custody of public officials which have been designated "public records" by the General Assembly are open to inspection by anyone at appropriate times, subject to the limitation that such inspection does not endanger the safety of the records or unreasonably interfere with the discharge of the duties of the officer having custody of the same.
2. One who applies to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles to inspect personally and copy data from a single registration and record of a motor vehicle in his possession, during office hours and at the registrar's convenience, is entitled to such inspection, and mandamus is an appropriate remedy to enforce such right.
APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Franklin County.
This mandamus action originated in the Court of Appeals for Franklin County with Paul B. Patterson, an Ohio citizen, as relator and Clifford W. Ayers, Registrar of Motor Vehicles of the state of Ohio, as respondent. Relator seeks a writ ordering respondent to grant him, relator, during business hours and at the convenience of respondent, access to and inspection of the records pertaining to the registration number of a certain motor vehicle belonging to a named resident of Columbus, Ohio, in order that relator may ascertain creditors' interests, if any, in such vehicle and take such data from such records as he may wish.
Respondent interposed a demurrer to the amended petition, on the grounds (1) that such petition does not state facts constituting a cause of action and (2) that its allegations are insufficient to entitle relator to the relief prayed for. On hearing, the Court of Appeals "ordered that the demurrer of the respondent to relator's amended petition be overruled; and respondent having elected not to plead further and being in default for answer it is further ordered that a writ of mandamus be issued to the respondent commanding him to allow the relator to inspect the names and addresses on drivers' license records and registration records of motor vehicles belonging to * * * [the named individual] without charge."
An appeal as of right brings the cause to this court for review.
Mr. John S. Zonak, for appellee.
Mr. Mark McElroy, attorney general, Mr. Richard F. Swope and Mr. Carl A. Bertoch, for appellant.
So far as pertinent here, Section 4507.25, Revised Code (amended, 1959), recites:
"The Registrar of Motor Vehicles may adopt and publish rules to govern his proceedings. All proceedings of the registrar shall be open to the public, and all documents in his possession shall be public records. * * * Upon the request of any person, accompanied by a fee of 50 cents per name, the registrar may furnish lists of names and addresses as such appear upon the applications for driver's licenses, provided that any further information contained in such applications shall not be disclosed." (Emphasis supplied.)
Section 4503.26, Revised Code (amended, 1959), provides, inter alia:
"The registrar may, upon application of any person and payment of the proper fee, search the records of the bureau and make reports thereof, and make photographic copies of the bureau records and attestations thereof."
The statute then continues, stating the fees chargeable for the described services.
Section 4505.14, Revised Code (amended, 1959), reads in part:
"The Registrar of Motor Vehicles, upon the application of any person and payment of the proper fees, may prepare and furnish lists containing title information in such form and subject to such territorial division or other classification as he may direct. The registrar may search the records of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and make reports thereof, and may make photographic copies of the bureau records and attestations thereof."
Then follows a recitation of the fees chargeable for such services. Compare Section 4503.10, Revised Code.
In examining the quoted statutes, particularly Section 4507.25, Revised Code, it is apparent that all documents in the possession of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles are public records open to the public, and that the fees prescribed in such statutes are for services rendered and materials furnished by the registrar upon request. The statutes do not expressly prohibit personal examination of the records by a member of the public, and the provisions that fees may be charged by the registrar when he renders a service in furnishing information contained in his records do not preclude a member of the public from making a personal examination of such records without paying such fees.
"The rule in Ohio is that public records are the people's records, and that the officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people; therefore anyone may inspect such records at any time, subject only to the limitation that such inspection does not endanger the safety of the record, or unreasonably interfere with the discharge of the duties of the officer having custody of the same." 35 Ohio Jurisprudence, 45, Section 41.
Such rule, above quoted, corresponds with the rule stated in 108 A.L.R., 1395, as follows:
"* * * automobile records are generally considered `public records' which any citizen has the right to examine and copy * * * provided that he complies with the reasonable regulations of the custodian of the records, and examines and copies them in such a way as not to interfere with the work of the custodian or the equal right of others to examine and copy such records."
How far the General Assembly might go in limiting access to and inspection of public records is not now before us. Suffice it to say, such body has not denied the right to inspect the records in the office of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles in the respect demanded by relator. We do not doubt that the registrar may establish and enforce reasonable rules and regulations covering the examination of the records in his custody and control to insure the orderly and efficient operation of his department, but under the statutes in their present wording he may not arbitrarily and wholly close those records to public view. All relator seeks in the present action is to inspect and take data, during business hours and at the convenience of the respondent, from records pertaining to a single motor vehicle registration. We think it is the duty of the respondent to allow him to do so, and that mandamus is an appropriate remedy to enforce relator's demand. If there should be a wholesale descent on the registrar by those demanding access to all types of records in his custody, a different problem would be presented.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is too broad; it should have been limited and confined to the one inspection sought by relator. So modified, the judgment is affirmed.
Judgment modified and, as modified, affirmed.
WEYGANDT, C.J., TAFT and BELL, JJ., concur.
MATTHIAS and HERBERT, JJ., dissent.
O'NEILL, J., not participating.
While I cannot disagree with paragraph one of the syllabus herein, I must dissent from paragraph two and the judgment, for the reason that, in my view, the Legislature has declared a policy with respect to motor vehicle bureau records.
Granting that Section 4507.25, Revised Code, provides that all documents in the possession of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles shall be public records, it also provides that certain information contained in the applications for drivers' licenses "shall not be disclosed." It is specifically provided in that and other sections how the information contained in certain of these "public records" may be obtained upon the payment of a nominal fee.
Where I differ from the majority view is wherein it states that the Legislature "has not denied the right to inspect the records in the office of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles." In my view, this right to inspect has been impliedly denied by virtue of the specific method provided for securing copies of desired records. The legislative intent seems clear to me that, although it has labeled all the documents in the possession of the registrar as public records, its provisions for furnishing copies thereof to the extent permitted (as e.g., in respect to drivers' license applications) are in effect a limitation upon the right of the public to free access thereto. At any rate, this decision will clarify the issue for future legislative consideration.
MATTHIAS, J., concurs in the foregoing dissenting opinion.