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Washington Prisoner’s Wife Prevails on PRA Claim for Investigative Report Redactions

Washington Prisoner’s Wife Prevails on PRA Claim for Investigative Report Redactions

by Mark Wilson

On September 16, 2014, the Washington Court of Appeals held that information redacted from a prison investigative report should have been disclosed to a prisoner’s wife under the state’s Public Records Act (PRA). The appellate court remanded for the lower court to consider an attorney fee award and penalties under RCW 42.56.550(4).

Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner Brock Marchel was “dry celled” for three days following a visit with his wife, Libby Haines-Marchel. When no contraband was discovered, he was returned to his regular cell.

Marchel received a copy of a report stating he was dry celled because three prisoners, whose identities were concealed, claimed that he was smuggling narcotics into the prison through visits with his wife.

Haines-Marchel filed a PRA request for documents concerning her husband’s dry celling. She received 43 pages of responsive documents. One document was the same report Marchel was given, except her copy was much more heavily redacted.

Haines-Marchel appealed the redactions to the DOC, which denied her appeal on the grounds that the information was exempt from disclosure under RCW 42.56.240(1) and (2). She then filed suit in superior court to compel disclosure and requested costs, penalties and attorney fees. She submitted the less-redacted copy of the report that Marchel had received in support of her summary judgment motion. The DOC argued her husband had erroneously received the less redacted version and also moved for summary judgment. The superior court granted summary judgment to the DOC, concluding that the redactions were appropriate.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the non-disclosure of most of the redacted information. Even so, the Court found that “Marchel’s name and number ..., the name of the crime or rule violation ..., the pre-printed material ... inquiring into whether an infraction was written and its results,” and the signature of the report’s author “do not fall within any claimed exemption to disclosure. The redaction of this material, therefore, violated RCW 42.56.070(1), the principal disclosure requirement of the PRA.”

The appellate court concluded that “Haines-Marchel must be deemed to have prevailed under RCW 42.56.550(4),” and remanded the case for the superior court to exercise its discretion in awarding attorney fees and statutory penalties under RCW 42.56.550(4). See: Haines-Marchel v. DOC, 183 Wn. App. 655, 334 P.3d 99 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014).


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Related legal case

Haines-Marchel v. DOC