HB 1185 and HB 1128


Today conservatives and open government advocates have come out swinging at Washington State House Bills 1185 and 1128.

The Clark County Republicans have a good summary of the bills at their site: http://www.clarkcountygop.org/display_news.htm?nid=1062.

I am both a conservative and an open government advocate, and while I may not agree with this completely, I understand why this legislation has been proposed. If others knew what actually goes on behind the doors of public agencies because of the lack of concrete law in this realm, I’m sure they would be more sympathetic too.

People are quick to make assumptions about the handling of public records and reality can be quite different from those perceptions. How records are handled can be different at every agency despite the myth that RCW 42.56 is one size fits all. As I pointed out in a blog post a couple of years ago, open records advocates often function in the realm of theory while public employees handling records requests operate in the realm of reality. There can be a significant disconnect through no fault of the former.


I worked in Police Records for more than 8 years. In that time I witnessed gross abuses of public disclosure law and did my best to legally thwart them until my job was threatened (and even after). What the public doesn’t know– and doesn’t seem terribly concerned with given the lack of response to previous blog posts on this topic– is that for profit entities are mining public records to sell the information to third parties.

This means that taxpayer-funded records personnel and legal counsel are spending extraordinary amounts of time fulfilling these ongoing “records requests,” pushing legitimate records requests from crime victims, insurance companies, and others to the back burner. Many of these data miners get these records for free because they bring their own scanning equipment, plug in at the public agency, and copy away (even though copies usually have to be made for them to scan in).

Why do they do this? Traffic accident reports were the most commonly requested item by data miners. The first couple pages of traffic accident reports contain the names of all people involved, including their addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, insurance information, a summary of medical information, and vehicle information including make, model, and VIN number. I was told that this information could not be redacted or considered private because there was no specific exemption for it in state law, and “you could find it on the web anyway.”

The attorney behind the primary case of data mining I was dealing with, whose company name made it sound like he was media, sold this information to third parties like chiropractors, who in turn would mail solicitations to the people involved in the accidents. I was dealing with these types at the same time that I was trying to process requests for cases involving horrors like juvenile sex crimes, which can require many redactions, and other sensitive cases.

There are also prisoners who file complicated records requests in hopes of filing a lawsuit against the agency and making big bucks. The state’s public records laws can award quite a per day amount that an agency “delays” a request. Inmates and criminals have also been known to file requests to obtain information on the officer who arrested them so that they can harass the officer and their family. This can become a safety issue for law enforcement personnel. Their names, salaries, and job titles might be public, but not every detail of their lives is– nor should they be.

My guess is that people quick to criticize the rationale behind this legislation are unfamiliar with how often public records laws and abused and how difficult it can be for agencies to keep up with both shady and normal requests alike. Records personnel often handle a great many duties in addition to managing records requests– I know, I definitely earned my keep in my years at the PD. I had people waiting for concealed pistol licenses, data entry to do, reports that needed to get over to DOC, software problems to solve, filing, phone calls, counter contacts, detectives to assist, and on it went.

For nearly a decade I’ve been advocating for changes in our state’s records laws that would stop data mining from police records and limit the abuses we had to live with. I was also involved with the legislation that specifically exempted public employees’ personal information from public disclosure and testified in Olympia in support of that on my own time.

I’ve also been very much in favor of law that would automatically exempt people’s personal information like their address and phone number from public disclosure. Why should a stalker, abuser, or other dangerous person be able to obtain this information from the police? Aren’t the police supposed to protect people, not create even more danger?

You’re not required to say why you want a record and even when a victim requests nondisclosure, which is an option listed in the RCW, that doesn’t mean the responding officer told the Records people that. That doesn’t mean that the info. won’t be released. The wording is terribly vague anyway– nondisclosure of what?

Here’s a hot button issue. If it becomes legal in Washington State to request lists of concealed pistol license holders– which last I knew, it was not– is it okay to release that because it’s listed in a public record? I don’t think so, but why not? Is that considered private? Why aren’t photos of a sexual assault victim automatically private? How about her address?

I couldn’t even tell you who’s behind this legislation but can say that I have an inkling of where they’re coming from. I doubt that this is about limiting the public’s access to records; it’s probably more about managing the clowns who use these records for profit, to threaten people, and to tie up agency’s resources– yes, they most definitely exist. You must have a concrete reason, like a section in the RCW, in order to manage their behavior or there’s not much of a legal leg to stand on according to some agencies’ attorneys.

I was not allowed to redact information in the interest of people’s privacy. I was not allowed to use statutes in other areas of the RCW designed to prevent certain vehicle and medical information from being released. Under threat of lawsuit from these enterprising, for profit entrepreneurs, I saw agencies right and left cave across the state in and give them what they wanted without redactions. There was a statewide coalition trying to keep common sense and the law at the forefront of our agencies’ logic, but we were overruled.

It just amazes me that public agencies work so hard to educate people about identity theft and being careful with their personal information while public records are perhaps the single biggest fuel source for information collectors nationally. What a paradox.

What other type of business is allowed to literally set up shop in police departments and courts and keep public servants at their beck and call? If a fuse box manufacturer wanted the names of all customers of a power company, would we also let him use a room there to stuff envelopes with his marketing material? How is that different? He’s bringing his own envelopes; the other guy’s bringing his own scanner.

Lastly, if nothing else I said about public records law being taken advantage of resonated, this should. The cost of processing the for profit, vengeful, and purposefully complicated records requests to public agencies– and therefore taxpayers– is huge. YOUR tax dollars, resources, and facilities are being used to generate incomes for data miners, felons, and people who want to cause trouble more than they want the records.

I used to joke that the attorney/”media” guy who had standing, ongoing records requests for “all traffic accident reports from this time to this time” should be paying a large part of my salary. In retrospect, that wasn’t a joke. I was essentially working for him part of the day. It’s why he was shut down in other states by executive order of their governors.

I’m a conservative. I’m a huge believer in open government. But I also believe that limits should be put on abuses of public records law, abuses rarely seen in the media but all too real to those in records positions. Ultimately, public records law was designed so that citizens could monitor the conduct of government, not the conduct of the individual (or gather and/or sell personal information that could also jeopardize their life, safety, property, or finances).

You can find an older post written on the subject, which also appeared on the Time’s Up crime victims advocacy blog, at https://wildninja.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/the-questionable-state-of-police-records/.


We don’t seem to be able to check crime, so why not legalize it and then tax it out of business?  -Will Rogers


©2013 H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com. All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com.

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