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Sirens & Gavels

Thu., Aug. 18, 2011, 5:25 p.m.

Court: Internal police probes are public

By MIKE BAKER,Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The public release of investigative records does not violate the privacy of law enforcement officers who are accused of misconduct but cleared of any wrongdoing, Washington's Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Justices agreed by a margin of 8-1 that the public has a right to know the details of internal investigations. But, in a split decision that led only four of the nine justices to write the lead opinion, the court determined that Bainbridge Island police officer Steven Cain's identity should be redacted when documents in his case are released.

Open government lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of newspapers, said she's concerned that setting a precedent of redacting the names of accused workers will make it difficult to expose those who have multiple complaints filed against them. Still, she said the ruling is a victory for disclosure because there was an increasing trend of law enforcement departments withholding documents.

"It's a practical victory," Earl-Hubbard said. "It gives us a way to get some records and have some oversight and not leave us completely in the dark."

Four of the justices agreed that disclosure with Cain's name redacted was the right decision, while four others, including Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, argued that the full document should be released. Justice James Johnson said the entire document should be kept private.

Madsen wrote that redacting the name does not align with the letter or the spirit of state public records law.

"The public has the right to know about allegations of such misconduct, investigation into alleged misconduct, and corrective measures that may have been taken," she said. "Only by access to this kind of information can the people assure integrity of government action."

A driver had accused Cain of sexual assault and strangulation during a September 2007 traffic stop. An investigation conducted by the Puyallup Police Department, at the request of the Bainbridge Island police chief, was turned over to prosecutors who determined that there was not sufficient evidence to establish that Cain had acted inappropriately.

After reporters requested the investigative records, the Bainbridge Island Police Guild and Cain filed a complaint to prevent Bainbridge Island from releasing the documents. A judge initially ruled that production of any portion of the reports would violate Cain's right to privacy.

Bob Christie, an attorney representing the Bainbridge Island Police Guild, said he would have liked to see the courts support the privacy of the full records. But he said the redactions will provide some protection for public workers so that their names won't be tarnished by unsubstantiated allegations.

"In today's communication world, once it's out there and connected with a name, a lot of members of the public wont looked past to the fact that it was unsubstantiated," Christie said.

The case provides little refuge for Cain, whose name is on record because of the court case. But Cain's case will aid other workers in the future, Christie said.

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