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Public Records Relating to Sex Offender Registry Not Exempt from Disclosure, Washington Court Rules

On April 7, 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, overturned the ruling of a trial court that held sex offender registry information was exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act (PRA). The court's majority held that statutes relating to community notification of registered sex offenders did not constitute an "other statute" that would exempt the records from disclosure under the state's liberal PRA.

Donna Zink had submitted three PRA requests from the Washington State Patrol (WSP) and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) seeking a copy of the "Sex and Kidnapping Offender Database," emails between WSP and Benton County officials, and sex offender registration forms relating to sex offenders with the last names starting with "A" or "B." Prior to fulfilling these requests, both the WSP and WASPC notified affected offenders of their intent to release the records absent a court order enjoining them from doing so.

Several John Doe offenders filed a class action suit seeking to stop the release of the records. The Does sought a declaratory ruling that sex offender registration records are exempt from public disclosure under the "other statute" provision of the PRA. That provision of the PRA law states that an agency is required to make public records available for public inspection unless the record falls within a specific exception outlined in the PRA or an "other statute" which prohibits disclosure of the records.

The trial court issued a declaratory ruling stating that sex offender registration records are exempt from disclosure because RCW 4.24.550 was an "other statute" that provides the "exclusive mechanism for public disclosure of sex offender registration records." That statute limits the persons to whom sex offender records may be released -- such as victims, witnesses, or a community member who lives near the residence of a sex offender. The Does had argued that .550 exclusively controlled release of sex offender information, while Zink maintained that the PRA superseded.

On direct appellate review, the Washington Supreme Court reversed, and ordered disclosure of the records. The court found that RCW 4.42.550 was not an "other statute" under the PRA and the records should be released to Zink.

In doing so, the court found two things. First, section .550 did not constitute an "other statute" under the PRA because it did not explicitly prohibit the requested records. "When a statute is not explicit, courts will not find an "other statute exemption," the court wrote.

The state high court also ruled that the language of .550 is framed in terms of what an agency is permitted to, or must do, and that there is no language the prohibits an agency from producing records. "Nothing in RCW 4.24.550 indicates a legislative intent to protect level I sex offenders or their victims," ruled the court. That statute, held the court, simply "guides an agency in deciding to proactively publish sex offender information." It does not prohibit an agency from disclosing any information.

Finally, the Supreme Court denied Zink's request for costs and attorney's fees. Because Zink prevailed against the John Doe plaintiff's and not a state agency, the penalty and attorney's fee PRA statutes did not apply. See: John Doe, et al., v. Washington State Patrol, Donna Zink, No. 90413-8 (S. Ct. WA), April 7, 2016.

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Related legal case

John Doe, et al., v. Washington State Patrol, Donna Zink

 

 

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