City Paper is not for tourists
When Carmen Anderson’s brand-new truck was rammed by a hit-and-run driver in a red sedan near 16th and U Streets NW last week, she did what anyone in her position would do: She called the cops, informed her insurance company, and subsequently filed an accident report with the 4th District police station.
On Feb. 8, less than 24 hours after she had filed the complaint, Anderson’s phone rang, bright and early. When she picked up, there was an unfamiliar voice on the other end.
“He talked to me as if I were a friend,” Anderson says. “He said that he’d heard about my accident and asked me how I was doing, if I was OK. Then he told me that he could help me.”
The caller told Anderson he worked for a law firm that wanted to represent her—a firm that specialized in hit-and-run cases. Upon realizing it was a solicitation, Anderson says, she immediately hung up. But that wasn’t the only such call she would receive that day. By 11:30 p.m, Anderson estimates, she had received more than a dozen solicitation calls from law firms—so many that the numbers started displacing each other from her Caller ID memory.
Eventually, Anderson asked one of the callers how he had gotten her information. The man, who identified himself as an employee of yet another local law firm, told her that he’d purchased a copy of her accident report from the police station that previous afternoon. The price: $2.
“I got really angry,” Anderson says. “When I filed the report, an officer told me there was essentially no hope that they would ever find the driver who hit me. And then they turn around and sell my private information to complete strangers who then harass me? What’s wrong here?”
Accident reports are public records, according to District police. Motor-vehicle laws in the District require—as do many insurance companies—a police report to be filed when a collision causes any property damage or human injury. Filers are asked to give out information such as home address, phone number, and driver’s-license number—which, on older District licenses, is the same as the Social Security number.
Individuals are not given a choice to opt out of disclosing such information, and District law prevents police from deleting or blacking out personal details, such as a driver’s-license number or phone number. The reports, according to police spokesperson Sgt. Tony O’Leary, are available to the public the day after they are filed.
“We can’t block access to accident reports, and we have no control over how they are used,” O’Leary says. “Public records are just that, public records.”
And law firms have been known to buy accident reports in bulk, often the day they come out, to mine them for potential clients. The practice is “very common in the District,” says Gerald Schwartz, a D.C. personal-injury lawyer, who says he doesn’t use reports himself. “Clients tell me stories all the time about how they were inundated with calls, and it’s horrible.”
Ernest Lindberg, ethics counsel for the D.C. Bar Association, says that the solicitation tactic can sometimes be useful. “When handled the right way,” he says, “there are cases where this kind of outreach has helped people, like, for example, people who don’t speak English or people who just are not aware of their legal rights.”
But a growing number of complaints about the practice have prompted many states to pass laws to tightly govern how information from accident reports can be used.
The Ohio Supreme Court, for instance, passed an ethics provision this past November banning lawyers from using the phone to troll for clients. Attorneys can still use accident reports to find potential clients, but they are allowed to contact potential customers only via tightly regulated mail solicitations. Meanwhile, a number of state and local bar associations have approved ethics rules that frown on using police reports as a marketing tool.
Report or no report, the act of cold-calling is illegal in Virginia and Maryland—which beefed up its ethics laws in 1996 after lawyers hounded survivors of a fatal crash involving MARC and Amtrak trains.
The District’s rules governing contact between lawyers and potential clients are far more lax, Lindberg says. According to ethics guidelines approved by the D.C. Bar, lawyers can pay so-called “intermediaries” to contact potential clients, whether via phone, mail, or other means.
Lindberg says the group has noticed a rise lately in complaints like Anderson’s—and is considering measures that would toughen penalties for lawyers found to be abusing the system. Currently, attorneys found guilty of harassing potential clients or abusing police-report information face everything from fines to potential disbarment.
“When you are getting calls at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, that’s a problem,” Lindberg says. “Lawyers have as much vested in improving the system as consumers do. For one, they don’t want to lose out on potential clients unfairly.”
For Anderson, the issue goes beyond annoying phone calls. Specifically, she’s concerned about what might happen if her information gets into the wrong hands, and she’s worried about growing instances of identity theft.
“I’ve opted out on the sharing of my personal information to credit-card companies, to banks, everywhere,” Anderson says. “I’ve worked hard for my credit, for my identity. The idea that anyone can get my information for $2, it makes me rethink my decision to report a crime.” CP