If You Live in PA, Your Home Address Isn’t Private


Blue eye peering through keyhole

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Home addresses that are part of public records can be disclosed to the public via open records requests, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last week.

The court upheld a 2012 lower court decision that stated “there is no constitutional right to privacy in one’s home address under the Pennsylvania Constitution.” Most state laws specifically exempt home addresses from records requests, as does the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The Pennsylvania ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed by Mel M. Marin, who wanted to run for Congress but did not want to provide his home address on official paperwork for fear that it would put him in danger of ”potential physical assault or death.”

Marin sought an injunction that would have allowed him to run for office without subjecting his address to open records laws.

No dice, the Supreme Court said in a ruling that brings clarity to one aspect of the ever-contested world of public records disclosure.

 

Minority of States

Terry Mutchler

“This speaks pretty loudly and clearly that a home address that exists on public records should be available,” says Terry Mutchler, an attorney and executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. Mutchler, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, noted that the decision is consistent with previous interpretation of Pennsylvania’s privacy laws.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had ruled in 2003 “an individual cannot reasonably expect that his identity and home addresses will  remain secret,” prior to the enactment of the current open records law in 2009.

In contrast, few other states compel public agencies to disclose addresses on record. “By and large Pennsylvania is still in a very small minority of states that permit the release of a home address,” Mutchler says.

The Freedom of Information Act for federal records also does not disclose information that constitutes an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” including home address, telephone numbers and email address.

States that don’t exempt addresses outright approach the issue in various ways:

  • New Jersey, another state that does disclose addresses, noted in a privacy study commission, “Many people are unaware that currently under [Open Records Law] their home address may be publicly disclosed when they give this information to public agencies. Several private citizens testified at the Commission’s open public hearings that when they give information about themselves to the government they expect it to go no further.”
  • New York has language in its law to protect against unwanted marketing campaigns, noting specifically that if records that contain addresses are released, ”the agency is  permitted to require that the applicant certify that such list will not be used  for solicitation or fund-raising purposes.”
  • Florida law doesn’t contain a blanket exemption for home addresses but does exempt a number of categories of people, including crime victims, police, firefighters, judges and other public officials.

 

Concerns of Safety

As for Marin’s concern for his safety, he could still have his address denied to specific requesters if he could prove that there was an actual threat to his security.

“This doesn’t mean that every home address is going to be out there,” says Mutchler. “There are still three exemptions– someone is not going to get the home address of a  minor, a judge or law enforcement official, or any home address where security is in play if the agency can meet burden of proof.”

Nevertheless, there could be a number of people, particularly public employees, who are unsettled that their addresses could be available for the asking. “We might see the legislature revisiting this,” Mutchler says. “There are very deep emotions on both sides.”

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