The Washington Supreme Court ruled today that the State Patrol cannot evade disclosure of public accident records using a federal statute and separate agreement with the State Department of Transportation. The decision affirms a 2010 decision from the Court of Appeals, Division II.
The Supreme Court's analysis mirrored that of both the trial court and the Court of Appeals in requiring the State Patrol to disclose requested records related to bike accidents on Seattle's Montlake Bridge. The State Patrol cannot hide behind a memorandum of understanding with the State Department of Transportation and WSDOT’s federal privilege under 23 U.S.C. §409, barring use of collision data in lawsuits. The federal privilege is intended to allow WSDOT to compile and analyze accident data to better implement highway safety measures funded by the federal government without concern that such analysis would be used to support lawsuits against the State.
Although WSDOT has physical custody of the accident records based on the MOU, they are still State Patrol records and subject to disclosure if the State Patrol cannot show an appropriate exemption. While the State Patrol’s reports do provide information for WSDOT’s federally exempt accident tracking and analysis, WSDOT’s exemption does not bar disclosure because the State Patrol collects its accident information for other non-exempt law enforcement investigation purposes.
In addition, the Supreme Court rejected a new argument from the State that the accident reports are confidential. The Court distinguished between reports submitted by motorists, which are largely confidential under RCW 46.52.080, and those submitted by law enforcement officers in the course of their duties, like the records at issue here that must be disclosed.
As we have seen frequently over the years, the Washington Supreme Court again construes the Public Records Act in favor of broad disclosure and will not allow agency exemption arguments to prevail unless the record unequivocally falls into a clear exemption.