OLYMPIA – Prison inmates would be barred from collecting damages in public records fights with state government and could be banned from court if they repeatedly file frivolous suits under bills supported this year by Attorney General Rob McKenna.
The state would also put more restrictions on eminent domain foreclosures and crack down on mail theft in legislative proposals McKenna unveiled Monday with legislators from both parties who support them.
Washington’s scheduled 105-day legislative session starts next Monday.
State law requires government agencies to release public records, and allows anyone who is denied a public record to sue and receive damages if a court agrees the record was public and should have been released by the government agency that denied the request….
The Public Records Act, which comes from a voters initiative, is used by journalists and citizen activists as a check on government. But about three-quarters of all public records lawsuits are filed by prison inmates, McKenna said, and more than half are from a half-dozen or so inmates who have turned the suits into “a cottage industry.”
“They should not be benefiting. Crime should not be paying in this way,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, a co-sponsor of a bill McKenna supports that would keep inmates from collecting damages from a denied records claim. The state would still be on the hook for attorneys fees if the lawsuit is successful.
Although damages aren’t assessed unless a government agency violates the law, McKenna insisted the cases involving inmate requests are mostly “innocent mistakes” that come from handling lengthy and complex requests. And while local governments sometimes complain they are saddled with unfair damage awards when losing lawsuits over requests from citizens, the attorney general said there would be no attempt to keep anyone else from receiving damages for failing to disclose records the law says are public.
“We don’t intend to propos penalties be removed for citizens,” he aid.
Another law would bar inmates from filing any new lawsuit in state court if they’ve had at least three previous cases dismissed as frivolous. It’s similar to a rule in federal courts.
In an effort to keep public records disputes from going to court, McKenna is also supporting a bill that would set up a pilot program in the Office of Administrative Hearings to review complaints of violations of the law. Another law would require any lawsuit over denied records to be filed within one year from the date an agency claims an exemption, provides the records or says there are no records that meet the request.
Two different proposals would limit local governments’ ability to seize private property. One would bar the use of eminent domain for economic development, and another would give a property owner 120 days to improve blighted property before it could be condemned. Similar bills were proposed last year, but died in committee.
Another proposal would make mail theft, which is now a misdemeanor, a felony. Mail theft often leads to identity theft, McKenna said.