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AGO Opinion 97057

1997 Neb. Laws LB 256; Confidentiality of Information Pertaining to Undercover License Plates; Disclosure of Such Information in Audit Reports
Opinion 97057

DATE: October 28, 1997

SUBJECT: 1997 Neb. Laws LB 256; Confidentiality of Information Pertaining to Undercover License Plates; Disclosure of Such Information in Audit Reports

REQUESTED BY: John Breslow

Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts

WRITTEN BY: Don Stenberg, Attorney General

Dale A. Comer, Assistant Attorney General




1997 Neb. Laws LB 256 deals with the issuance of undercover

license plates for motor vehicles operated by various law

enforcement agencies and various other agencies of state and local

government. The bill specifies what agencies are authorized to

obtain the special license plates from the Department of Motor

Vehicles, and the procedures for doing so. You state that you

"have been asked to provide fairly basic information to the press

on undercover license plates." In that regard, you then provided

us with a draft of a document which lists the number of undercover

plates issued to various state and local agencies in 1997 and in

1994. You pose two questions to us pertaining to the release of

such information regarding undercover plates.




1. Release of Information Regarding Undercover Plates to the

Press.




Your first question pertains to the release of information

regarding undercover license plates to the press. You ask, "[m]ay

we provide information on the number of license plates, such as in

our draft, to the press?" In response to that question, we believe

that the pertinent portions of LB 256 prohibit the release of such

information.




1997 Neb. Laws LB 256, § 1(4) provides, as is relevant:




The Department of Motor Vehicles shall keep records

pertaining to undercover license plates confidential, and

such records shall not be subject to public disclosure.

Any person who receives information pertaining to

undercover license plates in the course of his or her

employment and who discloses any such information to any

unauthorized individual shall be guilty of a Class III

misdemeanor.




(Emphasis added).




In Nebraska, in the absence of anything indicating to the

contrary, statutory language should be given its plain and ordinary

meaning, and when the words of a statute are plain and unambiguous,

no interpretation is necessary to ascertain their meaning. Van

Ackeren v. Nebraska State Board of Parole, 251 Neb. 477, 558 N.W.2d

48 (1997). It appears to us that the portion of LB 256 emphasized

above is plain and unambiguous and needs little interpretation.

When read with its ordinary meaning, it prohibits "any person who

receives information" regarding undercover license plates "in the

course of his or her employment" from disclosing "any such

information" to unauthorized persons. That broad language would

seem to reach you and your staff, since you receive information

regarding undercover plates in the course of your employment

performing audits, and "any such information" would seem broad

enough to cover even a simple listing of the number of plates

issued to state agencies such as that proposed in your draft press

document. It is also clear that neither you nor the press have any

special exemptions from liability under the express terms of the

statute. Consequently, we believe that disclosure of any

information pertaining to undercover plates to unauthorized persons

including a listing of the number of plates granted to specific

state agencies could expose you to prosecution under § 1(4) of LB

256.




We would also note that when the language of a statute is

ambiguous and must be construed, recourse may be had to the

legislative history of the statute for the purpose of discovering

the intent of the Legislature. North Star Lodge No. 227 v. City of

Lincoln, 212 Neb. 236, 322 N.W.2d 419 (1982). Therefore, we

reviewed the legislative history of LB 256 in the event that it

might be argued that the statute is ambiguous and requires

construction. There is nothing in that legislative history which

sheds any light on the scope of the language in § 1(4) set out

above, and we are left, again, with the plain language of the

statute. For the reasons discussed previously, we believe that

language would reach your proposed disclosures to the press.




2. Disclosure of Information Regarding Undercover Plates in Audit

Reports.




Your second question involves the disclosure of information

regarding undercover plates in the audit reports generated by your

office. You ask, "[i]f we were to do an audit on the undercover

plates what information, if any, could be disclosed in our report?"




As discussed above, the language of § 1(4) of LB 256, when

given its ordinary meaning, is broad in scope and application.

"Any person who receives information" regarding undercover license

plates "in the course of his or her employment" is prohibited from

disclosing "any such information" to unauthorized persons. It

seems to us, therefore, that § 1(4) of LB 256 would reach the bulk

of an audit report prepared by your office concerning unmarked

license plates. As a result, we believe that any "information

pertaining to undercover license plates" in your audit report may

not be disclosed to unauthorized persons.




Sincerely yours,

DON STENBERG

Attorney General




Dale A. Comer

Assistant Attorney General