Transparency, Privacy, and Police Body Cams in Washington

Bill Lucia has a great article in Crosscut about a little wrinkle in new officer-worn body camera policies being adopted by police departments across the state:

But even though his officers embraced the new technology, and the department has the money set aside in its 2015 budget to roll out a permanent body camera program, Strachan is planning to hold off for now. The reason: At least two other Washington state police departments that use the cameras have received public disclosure requests for all video footage recorded by the devices. The requests threaten to create a crippling workload for agencies with limited staff and technology. Some police officials also worry about the privacy implications for their communities if the footage is made widely available.

Lucia at 1 (emphasis added). Continue reading

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Daily Decisions: Drug Test Results Exempt from Public Records Act

The Freedom Foundation (“FF”) filed a public records request for documents relating to a ferry accident in Seattle. In Freedom Foundation v. Washington State Department of Transportation (Division 2, May 10, 2012), the Court of Appeals referred to the accident as an “allision,” which is defined as “contact between a moving vessel and a stationary vessel or object.” That was a new one for me. I like it.

Anyway, in response to FF’s request, the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) produced documents, including information that drug and alcohol testing had been conducted on the ferry’s crew. However, DOT redacted the results of the individual tests. FF filed suit, asserting a right to unredacted records.

The Court of Appeals held that the records were properly redacted pursuant to (1) the PRA’s “other statute” exception, together with (2) federal regulations requiring that drug test results be kept confidential. Under the relevant federal regulations, marine employees must be tested for alcohol and drugs following any “serious marine incident.” The ferry employees here at issue were tested pursuant to that requirement. However, related regulations require that the results of those tests be kept confidential. Continue reading

Daily Decisions: County’s Attorneys’ Invoices Are Not (Necessarily) “Public Records”

Thurston County is a member of the Washington Counties Risk Pool, which provides self-insured coverage for various counties’ liability. Thurston has a $250,000 deductible. As part of the deal, the Risk Pool can appoint defense counsel for the County in covered cases. Until the deductible is reached, the attorneys’ invoices go to the County and the County pays them. After the deductible is exhausted, bills no longer go to the County and the County has no responsibility to pay them.

Back in 2001 “several former prosecutors sued the County for discrimination (the Broyles litigation).” The Risk Pool covered the claims. The plaintiffs won large awards against the County. The first $250,000 of invoices were received and paid by the County. But there were an additional $1.9 million of invoices above the deductible that the County never saw and that it was not responsible for paying. The Risk Pool took care of that.

Arthur West wanted to see those invoices, so he submitted a PRA request to the County for records related to attorney billings on the case. That request has been subject to numerous prior cases and opinions and remands and whatnot. But none of that is really relevant to the issue on this appeal, which is an issue of first impression:

whether the definition of a Thurston County “public record” under the  PRA includes attorney fee invoices for amounts greater than the County’s $250,000 deductible, which invoices the County’s Risk Pool-appointed defense attorneys prepared and never provided to the County (because these invoices properly were submitted to and paid by the County’s Risk Pool).

In Arthur S. West v. Thurston County (Division 2, May 8, 2012), the Court of Appeals held that the invoices are not public records under the PRA. Continue reading

Privacy vs. Accountability: The Police “Dash-Cam” Litigation

Last week, King County Superior Court Judge James Rogers issued an opinion resolving a dispute between KOMO reporter Tracy Vedder (“KOMO”) and the Seattle Police Department (“SPD”) regarding access to SPD “dash-camera” videos under the Public Records Act (“PRA”). Judge Rogers’s decision has gotten some publicity, which is not surprising given the public nature of the dispute, so I figured the case and the surrounding publicity would be worth some discussion here on the blog. But before I talk about the pub, I should probably do my best to summarize what Judge Rogers actually decided.

Dash-Cam Picture

Screen capture from a dash-cam video obtained by KOMO

Continue reading

SCOW Summary: Federal Privilege Does Not Apply to Accident Reports

A strange-ish case from our Supreme Court yesterday, holding that accident reports collected by the Washington State Patrol (“WSP”) in cooperation with the State Department of Transportation (“DOT”) are subject to the Public Records Act (“PRA”) despite a potentially applicable federal privilege.

I say the case — Gendler v. Batiste (Wash., April 12, 2012) — is strange-ish because it’s unclear to me why the dispute arose at all. But before we get to that, a quick summary of opinion itself. Continue reading

Daily Decisions: Public Records Act

In Levy v. Snohomish County (Division 1, January 23, 2012) (previously unpublished), the Court of Appeals held that the County had complied with a prisoner’s public records request because the County responded “without delay to every request or communication from Levy and his agent.”  And while the County delayed in producing a responsive two-page document, that delay was inadvertent and the County rectified the error within one day of discovering it.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claim.