Open government received a boost Thursday when the Washington Supreme Court narrowed the parameters governing when law enforcement agencies can automatically deny public records requests. And it was a Spokane legal tussle that helped shaped that ruling.
The recent case stemmed from a confrontation between a Seattle man and an off-duty Seattle police detective. That legal wrangling was settled early this month, and it cost the city of Seattle $235,000. Fortunately, the high court decided to go ahead and issue its ruling, which sets an important precedent.
In 2009, the Seattle man, Evan Sargent, blocked a West Seattle alley with a truck while picking up laundry for his mother’s business. This apparently angered Detective Donald Waters, who was off-duty and looking for a parking spot. The parties disagree on what happened next, but the incident escalated and Waters ended up arresting Sargent, alleging assault. The prosecutor’s office declined to file charges, and Sargent sought records related to his case and an internal investigation of Waters’ actions.
Sargent was rebuffed, with the Seattle Police Department claiming disclosure would hurt an investigation.
However, as the majority opinion noted in its 5-4 ruling, the guidelines for when police agencies can turn down records requests without justification were outlined in a case brought by The Spokesman-Review. In a 2001 ruling, the court said police reports become public when a case ends, and “the end” is defined as when it’s turned over to a prosecutor.
In the Spokane case, the newspaper sought an incident report when an assistant city attorney was arrested for drunken driving and attempted assault. The Police Department refused, even though the case was in the prosecutor’s hands. The court ruled the report was no longer subject to the blanket “ongoing investigation” exemption, and that the burden shifted to the police for justifying nondisclosure.
That was a critical ruling, because a 2001 audit by Northwest newspapers showed that more than half of law enforcement agencies did not believe police incident reports, which provide the first details of alleged crimes, were public documents. But without them, the media struggle to produce timely reports about criminal activity and how police respond.
Thursday’s ruling reinforces the limits on police agencies trying to clamp down on information. The majority opinion, authored by Associate Justice Barbara Madsen, cites this critical line from the Public Records Act: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
The dissenting justices said the ruling would cripple police investigations, but that’s speculative.
If police agencies end up petitioning the Legislature for broader discretion, they should be required to produce concrete examples of compromised investigations. “Trust us” is not a provision of the law; nor should it be.