Department of Corrections

The Washington Court of Appeals declined to decide what it called an “interesting and important issue” regarding an agency’s obligation under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), to obtain records from a third party in response to a public records request. Because the record and briefing on appeal left “unanswered factual questions,” the court vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC).

In Baker v. Department of Corrections, No. 34967-5-III (Wash. App. June 29, 2017), a DOC inmate requested copies of negotiable financial instruments deposited by DOC into his inmate trust subaccount. With the assistance of Bank of America (BOA), DOC manages this internal trust accounting system to assist with inmate finances, such as an inmate’s court-imposed financial obligations. DOC scans the front and back of negotiable instruments (e.g., checks or money orders) with BOA’s proprietary software and transmits the digital images to BOA. The digital images are not stored on DOC’s system. DOC then destroys the paper copies of the negotiable instruments after a certain period of time.

Continue Reading Documents Held by Third-Party Vendor: An “Interesting and Important” Washington Public Records Act Issue Left Unresolved

A prisoner at the Washington State Coyote Ridge Corrections Center requested a document that the state could not find. The prisoner sued. A Washington appellate court on August 18, 2016 ruled that the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) did not subject a government to liability for lost records – or, even impose a burden to prove when the document was lost. Jones v. Dep’t of Corr. The court recognized that the PRA does not allow an agency to destroy records subject to a pending request. But, the court acknowledged that an “agency is not required to produce a document that does not exist.” There was no evidence that the Department unlawfully destroyed the requested form. And, the court pointed to federal court rulings finding a “government agency in compliance with the freedom of information act when it performed a reasonable search despite evidence that some requested records were accidently lost.” While an unpublished opinion, the case is useful in recognizing that the PRA “is not intended to penalize inadvertent loss, a phenomenon endemic to a large organization.”

In Adams v. Washington State Department of Corrections, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that for purposes of penalty calculation for agencies that do not comply with PRA requests under RCW 42.56.565(1), an agency will be punished for “bad faith” if it fails to engage “in any serious independent analysis of the exempt status of documents.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the findings of the trial court that found that the DOC’s justification for withholding a prisoner’s state and federal rap sheets was insufficient, and that the DOC engaged in “bad faith” under the PRA by failing to.

In this case, Adams, a prisoner, submitted a public records request to the DOC for his inmate central file—a collection of documents that contained, among other items, an offender’s criminal history obtained from both state and federal authorities, otherwise known as “rap sheets.” The DOC refused to produce portions of the rap sheets requested, some of which were obtained from ACCESS, a federal database, arguing that the records were exempt from disclosure under RCW 4.56.070(1) and federal laws. The DOC also argued that non-conviction criminal history information was for law enforcement use only, and therefore exempted from disclosure.

Continue Reading Agency’s Failure to Engage in “Any Serious Independent Analysis” of Validity of Exemption Status Supports a Finding of Bad Faith Under the PRA

In Francis v. Washington State Department of Corrections, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that the Department acted in bad faith by not conducting a reasonable search in response to an inmate public records request, awarding both penalties and costs.  This is the second time in the past month that Division II has addressed the 2011 amendments to RCW 42.56.565, which now prohibits an award of PRA penalties to an inmate unless the responding agency acted in bad faith.  See Gronquist v. Dep’t of Corrections (Oct. 29, 2013).

Unlike Gronquist, however, here the court found that DOC acted in bad faith.  In particular, the court noted (1) a delayed response by the agency, (2) lack of strict compliance with PRA procedural requirements, (3) lack of proper training and supervision, (4) negligence or gross negligence, and (5) sufficient clarity in Francis’s request. In responding to the request, DOC spent no more than 15 minutes searching for the documents, which the court described as “almost a rubber-stamp situation.”  Despite these findings, the court also found no recklessness or intentional noncompliance, no intentional hiding or misrepresentation, and no deceit on DOC’s part.

Continue Reading Failure to Conduct a Reasonable Search Supports a Finding of Bad Faith Under the PRA

Public records act requests by prisoners have long been an issue for jail administrators and for the courts. Creative gaming of public records act requests by prisoners has bedeviled both.

While the State of Washington’s courts have liberally applied the reach of public records act requests, both the legislature and the courts have imposed limitations in the area of prisoner requests. In 2009, the Washington legislature amended the state’s Public Records Act expressly to allow for an injunction against repeated or abusive public records act requests by prisoners under specified circumstances. RCW 42.56.565.

Continue Reading Prisoners Have Public Records Rights – But Not All of Them