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Staff File Photo / Parts of a broken sign are seen at the scene of a single-car accident on Brainerd Road that killed two people in 2016.

Much of downtown Chattanooga, Highland Park, North Brainerd, East Chattanooga, Highway 58, the Southside, Alton Park and St. Elmo, along with many of the city's main thoroughfares, are in the Tennessee House district of state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem.

A new law will make it easier for Hakeem and every other member of the General Assembly to have information on road locations and intersections about fatal traffic accidents in their districts and, in turn, be able to work with local officials to put safeguards in place to reduce such accidents.

Previously, legislators could get the crash reports of such accidents by requesting them from the Department of Safety under the public records act. The new law allows them to make a standing request for such information for a year without having to make another request. The reports are then required to be provided within 30 business days after a confirmed traffic death (unless it is subject to an ongoing investigation).

In our estimation, that is one of the few new laws tracked by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG) that will make things more transparent for citizens. Several new laws and expansions of, or changes to, previous laws passed during the 2021 legislative session seem to take things — even if in small ways — in the other direction.

But another new law to applaud expands the offenses for which people may request expungement for their crimes and lessens the cost to request expungement. In all, 101 different felonies were added to the list eligible for expungement. It also regulates the time elapsed before seeking expungement to five years for a misdemeanor or Class E felony, 10 years for a Class D or C felony, and 15 years for a Class B or A felony. In addition, the law authorizes a court clerk to charge a fee of up to $100 for expungement, but does not require it.

LEARN MORE

TCOG's full report may be found at https://tcog.info/tcog-reports-and-research/2021-legislative-report-open-government/.

Meanwhile, legislators put a new exemption in the law to make license plate data captured from automatic license plate reader systems such as mobile and fixed high-speed cameras confidential; another exception made photo evidence, including video, that depicts a deceased minor victim at the scene of a motor vehicle accident confidential; and a new law made personally identifying information provided by an individual as part of the individual's use of, or participation in, a government-sponsored or government-supported property alert service or program confidential.

Confidentiality was expanded where it regards "a record of a minor student" attending a K-12 school "that is created by a school resource or other law enforcement officer, or that is maintained by a law enforcement agency as the result of an incident involving the minor that occurred on school property and did not result in a charge of delinquency ... "

TCOG argued unsuccessfully against the bill as duplicative, noting that another exemption already makes law enforcement records of juveniles confidential and appropriately provides for exceptions for some records to become public, such as for records in the interest of national security.

Another instance in which confidentiality was expanded involved the home addresses and telephone numbers of people who are arrested when the records are held by municipal and county law enforcement agencies and detention facilities. TCOG successfully lobbied for an amendment to the expansion if the reported crime was the home address of the person arrested.

The original bill also had made law enforcement video (such as body camera footage) confidential, but TCOG requested this provision be removed, and it was. Without law enforcement body camera video in the last half decade, numerous officers would not have been properly cited for their malicious behavior or exonerated when footage showed they did not do what was alleged of them.

In a move toward more transparency, on the other hand, two new laws made educational materials used in public schools easier for the public to inspect.

One provided that school textbooks and instructional materials proposed for adoption by a school board be made available for public inspection online, which may include via the state textbook depository's website. The other requires each local education agency — Hamilton County Schools, for instance — to publish its curriculum on the school district's website and to update curriculum changes at the beginning of each semester.

The laws, though well intentioned, may create situations such as occurred in Williamson County last week when a parents group objected to a second-grade reading curriculum that allegedly teaches about suicide, encourages students to be either "furious or mad," describes seahorse reproduction, supports cannibalism and is said to be anti-American. Nevertheless, parents should know what their children are being taught.

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