Public Records Act Gone Wrong?

Gavel and Law Books

He’s been arrested for stalking, assault, and intimidating a judge. He’s said to run with a bad crowd and is currently behind bars.

But KOMO News is reporting that Robert Hill wants, “a full list of adult dancer licensing forms from the county, including identifying details of their bodies, their personal information and photos.”

http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Strippers-sue-to-keep-personal-files-away-from-Tacoma-man-189771811.html

The strippers are fighting back in court, and I am squarely on their side. I would be on their side regardless of who is requesting this information, which in this case happens to be an inmate KOMO says has been called aggressive and violent.

Those familiar with my mental meanderings on the web know that I have strong feelings about the disclosure of personal information after years handling public records requests in police records. Our state’s public disclosure act (now called the Public Records Act) was created so that citizens could keep tabs on the conduct of government, not the conduct of individuals. Yet public records are being increasingly utilized to gain personal information on individuals and to generate profit.

The latter is the reason that Hill claims to want this information. He wants to make the dancers “big stars through social media.” I noted the narcissism in his statements, as if he’s the talent agent these women need and they won’t achieve success without him. My mind flashed to a case I reviewed this weekend in which a sexual sadist stalked his victim for decades. I also thought of the MTC:R3 (Massachusetts Treatment Center Rapist Typology), its description of an overt sadistic rapist, and the role that fantasy plays in some predators’ behavior.

(For the record, I did not call Hill these things. It’s normal to draw on my education and experience when thinking through such issues. He also volunteered why he claims to want these records which opened him up to public scrutiny.)

Legally Hill does not have to offer a reason for wanting this information, but I find that a thinly veiled excuse for what could lead to horrible crimes and harassment for these people and their families. No, I don’t agree with what they do for a living. But they shouldn’t have to be afraid of perverts and predators showing up at their homes or harming them either.

It’s largely for this reason that the addresses and phone numbers of public employees were specifically exempted from disclosure about a decade ago. I know; I was in Olympia to testify on the matter. We needed this. But there is no such specific exemption for crime victims and others who could be harmed or their identities stolen through the release of personal information from public records.

It’s been years since I worked in police records, so feel free to correct me on my knowledge of disclosure law since it could be outdated. RCW 42.56.240(2) still says that this information CAN (doesn’t mean will) be redacted from public records: Information revealing the identity of persons who are witnesses to or victims of crime or who file complaints with investigative, law enforcement, or penology agencies, other than the commission, if disclosure would endanger any person’s life, physical safety, or property.

Obviously the strippers involved in this court action are not covered under that statute. Robert Hill has not previously committed violence against all of these women individually (that we know of)– they’re not crime victims (yet, and I hope never). Right now they’re people who have licenses from the government, who are logically required to give certain personal data to the government. I don’t know why photos and certain physical details are required, but they are.

Pierce County can’t withhold or redact this information because it’s common sense. They can’t withhold or redact this information for safety reasons. They can’t deny this request because of Hill’s criminal history. Pierce County can only withhold or redact this information if our laws specifically say they can. I believe they already do in a broad sense– conduct of government, not the conduct of the individual. But a savvy attorney will want to cite a specific statute that will hold up in a court challenge in order to withhold any information.

What about privacy, you ask? RCW 42.56.050 does address the invasion of privacy, but last I knew, this statute was seldom used and few wanted to defend it: A person’s “right to privacy,” “right of privacy,” “privacy,” or “personal privacy,” as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.

Note the two-pronged test. Releasing someone’s date of birth, address, phone number, summary of injuries, children’s names, make, model, and VIN number of their automobile, and so on has not been considered private by many agencies in recent years. That information is scanned in and sold by profiteers. See https://wildninja.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/the-questionable-state-of-police-records/. The use of this statute has fallen by the wayside under threats of lawsuits and the mindset that “you can get that information on the web.”

RCW 42.56.010 reminds me that there is no distinction between written or typed records, photographs, digital information, and even metadata in the law. It’s all considered public record– as it should be– unless specifically exempted by statute. The problem is that the redactions and exemptions aren’t being made to protect people’s personal information. There are some agencies that are vigilant about this, but others are not.

(4) “Writing” means handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, and every other means of recording any form of communication or representation including, but not limited to, letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combination thereof, and all papers, maps, magnetic or paper tapes, photographic films and prints, motion picture, film and video recordings, magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, diskettes, sound recordings, and other documents including existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated.

The fact that the guy requesting these records has a criminal history, is dangerous, and has previously stalked people is irrelevant to this request, unfortunately. If he were requesting the home address and pictures of someone he had previously stalked, a prudent agency will use the statutes at their disposal and deny him that information.

In this case, he’s basically asking for business licensing information with major embellishments that don’t appear to be directly related to the conduct of government. This is different than asking for a list of names only (which is still disturbing), for the number of strippers registered, and more general information.

Here’s a side note: under our laws, Pierce County does not have to create a list for him or customize these records in any way. We only have the right to request existing records in the form they’re in. For efficiency’s sake sometimes agencies will put documents onto a CD or DVD, but they don’t have to run reports or compile data. This just jogged my memory about another point– although requestors don’t have to say why they’re requesting a record or even necessarily identify themselves, I don’t think such data is to be used for commercial purposes.

Like others, I wonder if this is another request from an inmate designed to cause trouble so that he can accuse the government of withholding information and gain a significant monetary reward. Every day that the government delays a request, the requestor can be awarded $5 to $100. Armen Yousoufian (not an inmate) was awarded $371,340 of YOUR money in 2010 for King County’s delays in turning over hundreds of documents to him: http://www.vashonbeachcomber.com/news/89528212.html. He could have been awarded over $800,000.

I’m betting that Pierce County gave this group of women the opportunity to stop the disclosure of these records but I don’t know that. Agencies do have the option to give the people whose personal information is being requested a chance to stop that release in court. It will be interesting to see who is successful. I hope it’s the strippers, because this could become positive change for crime victims, including domestic violence and stalking victims. This could lead to discussions about the holes in our law and much-needed revisions of it.

We shouldn’t wait until someone is stalked, raped, assaulted, or threatened before beefing up Washington’s public records laws to protect people.  We live in a sick world and government should protect people, not make their victimization more possible. While that is not the intent of the government, it is a consequence of our conveniently ambiguous and unsafe records laws.

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See also https://wildninja.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/hb-1185-and-hb-1128/ for a discussion of legislation that went to the House Committee on Local Government last week and https://wildninja.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/the-questionable-state-of-police-records/ for my initial article on this topic.

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Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. -Louis D. Brandeis

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©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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