MORRISON – If you get into a traffic accident in the jurisdiction of the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department – whether you are at fault or not – you will get a letter from the agency.
The mailer doesn’t contain a copy of the accident report. Rather, it gives you instructions on how to access those records from a website. Once on the site, you’ll find out it costs $13 to get the report.
The letter states, “To obtain the full accident report, you must register for an account at the website listed on the [accompanying] card.”
What the letter doesn’t say is that people have the right to obtain those reports for a much lower cost.
If someone goes into the Sheriff’s Department in Morrison to obtain the report, that person is charged a flat fee of $5, no matter how many pages. Under the Freedom of Information Act, requests for public records can be emailed.
A state law allows law enforcement agencies to charge up to $5 for reports, and $20 if they involve accident reconstruction officers.
So why is the Sheriff’s Department routing people to a website with a higher charge?
Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said the department needed crash-reporting software, which would have cost $20,000, plus thousands of dollars in regular upgrades. To avoid those expenses, he said, the county entered into an agreement with LexisNexis to get the software for free.
The catch: a $13 fee to the public, with $8 going to the company and $5 to the county.
“I truly believe that the $13 is something that people’s insurance companies will reimburse them for,” Wilhelmi said. “This pays for the software that we have been provided with. We have it given to us for free.”
The system allows people who are involved in accidents to retrieve the reports for their insurance companies early in the process, Wilhelmi said.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Department has a website that allows insurance companies to access accident reports. The department charges people $5 for the reports.
“If insurance companies want the report, they can get it online and be done with it,” Sheriff John Varga said. “We don’t send a letter.”
Esther Seitz, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, which pushes open government issues, said the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department shouldn’t make it seem as if the $13 charge is the only way to access the report.