Less than twenty four hours after Wednesday’s post on New Mexico’s Supreme Court’s decision on disclosure of police misconduct records, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision in Bainbridge Island Police Guild v. City of Puyallup, No. 823740-0. In Bainbridge Island, the Court addressed whether complaints alleging police misconduct must be disclosed under Washington State’s Public Records Act (“PRA”) even if the accusations are unfounded or unsubstantiated.
The case was brought by a citizen who alleged that a police officer sexually and physically assaulted her during the course of a traffic stop. Investigations were conducted by the cities of Puyallup (criminal) and Mercer Island (internal investigation). Each investigation found the claims to be unsubstantiated. The case garnered media attention, and several journalists and news organizations, in addition to the complainant herself, made public records requests for the investigative reports. The cities of Puyallup and Mercer Island informed the requestors that the documents would be produced absent an injunction, which the Police Guild and the implicated officer sought (though not before at least one of the reports had been released and information published by some media sources).
Subsequent records requests and demands for injunctions led to in camera review of the documents by a Kitsap County Superior Court judge, who determined that the reports should be withheld under the investigative report exception to the PRA, RCW 42.56.240(1). Injunctions were also sought against requestors in Pierce County Superior Court. That court determined that the Puyallup report could be withheld from disclosure under the personal information exemption to the PRA, former RCW 42.56.230(2) and privacy concerns under RCW 42.56.050. Injunctions enjoining disclosure of the reports were granted in King County Superior Court on the same grounds.
The Supreme Court accepted direct review. The lead opinion (4 justices) overturned the King and Pierce County decisions, which had determined that the reports could be withheld in their entirety based on privacy concerns under the PRA’s personal information exemption. Personal information is not defined in the PRA, but has been defined by the Supreme Court as “information relating to or affecting a particular individual, information associated with private concerns or information that is public and not general.” Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue Sch. Dist. No. 405, 164 Wn.2d 199, 211, 189 P.3d 139 (2008). The Court rejected the trial courts’ determination that the reports should be withheld in their entirety, and instead instructed the agencies to produce the records, but redact identifying information (i.e. the officer’s name, social security number or other identifying data) in order to protect personal privacy interests. The Court compared the unsubstantiated allegations against police officers with the Bellevue John Does case, where the Court found the names of public school teachers who are the subject of unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct are exempt from disclosure, but the underlying investigative reports (with names redacted) were subject to release. The Court also addressed the investigative records exemption to the PRA, RCW 42.56.240(1) (raised in the Kitsap County Superior Court case), and found it inapplicable, as the records are not essential to effective law enforcement. Disclosure of the records (without identifying information) was justified by the public’s “legitimate interest” in knowing how the allegations of misconduct were investigated. Opinion at 18-22; see also RCW 42.56.050.
In contrast, the concurrence/dissent (4 justices) asserted that the entire record should be released, including the officer’s name. Justice Madsen wrote that an officer’s name does not need to be redacted in an investigation or complaint against a police officer for sexual misconduct, because such allegations “in no way involve the details of one’s personal and private life.” Concurrence/dissent at 1. “Public records relating to alleged misconduct of public servants and who government agents investigate such allegations are quintessential examples of the kind of information that the PRA opens to scrutiny. The public has the right to know… .” Concurrence/dissent at 2. That opinion would hold that the exemptions raised by the Police Guild and the officer did not justify nondisclosure.
Finally, Justice Johnson wrote a lone dissent finding that the two investigative reports “fit squarely” within the PRA exemption for investigative records, thus should not be disclosed at all. He found the lead opinion to be inconsistent with Bellevue John Does.
The practical result of these decisions is that disclosure outweighs privacy concerns in the arena of public employees’ misconduct. Investigative records detailing claims of misconduct must be released and available to the public. This will likely apply across the board to all public sector employees, and will not be limited solely to law enforcement or education. Even if allegations are unsubstantiated, the record must be released, though with redaction of names or personal identifying information.
Click here for a recent Seattle Times article on the decision.