Branan, Brad, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
Restricted personal records make checking school bus driver criminal convictions tougher
Investigating school bus drivers is nothing new, but we found a new twist: restricted access to personal information because of identity theft. Still, we found there are ways to get the answers needed and believe our lessons can benefit other journalists interested in similar stories.
It all started after a second Tucson bus driver was charged with DUI last year. I filed record requests with several metro school districts and the state Department of Public Safety, asking for a list of bus drivers and their birth dates.
Because a lot of reporters have exposed school bus drivers with criminal records and multiple moving violations, I wasn't expecting to break new ground. Elliot Jaspin, founder of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, reported the seminal version of the story almost 20 years ago at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin. Philip Meyer helped to make it a staple CAR project when he discussed Jaspin's work in the book "Precision Journalism."
But times have changed since those stories were originally done, and I found that the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the school district officials were only willing to provide me with driver names - no birth dates - which made checking driver records much more difficult.
Officials told me that the privacy rights of the drivers outweighed the public's right to know and cited a state Supreme Court decision that found a Phoenix television station couldn't have the birthdates of every teacher simply because it found one sex offender working as a teacher.
I decided to try to find numerous examples of school bus drivers with criminal records or multiple moving violations. Building a list of cases, I thought, might persuade officials to release information out of a fear they would lose in court, or perhaps convince my newspaper's publisher to challenge some bad case law.
Though neither scenario played out, the thought kept me motivated during long and sometimes tedious hours of records research.
Digging through records
I began by checking names in the bus driver database against those in a number of law enforcement and court databases. A lot of names matched, but I needed more information to make sure they were referring to the same person.
Since court records and traffic citations sometimes list the occupation of a defendant, I then searched through court files, hoping to find records that listed the defendant's job as school bus driver. I found quite a few.
Next, I matched a driver to a particular court case, then used the birth date in that file to check other traffic and criminal records possibly involving the driver. For example, Ruben Velasquez Alvarez racked up convictions for assault during his 26-year career as a Tucson bus driver. The behavior was related to alcohol abuse, a problem also on display when he received two DUIs, court records said. …