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Washington Supreme Court Sanctions Seattle Police for Failure to Comply With Public Records Act

Since 2007, Seattle Police Department's (SPD) entire patrol fleet has been equipped with in-car video and sound recording equipment ("dash-cam"). In 2010, a reporter from KOMO News, Tracy Vedder, made several requests to the SPD under the state Public Records Act (PRA). She asked for dash-cam training manuals, log sheets, and a list of any and all digital in-car recordings that had been tagged for retention by the SPD.

The SPD denied all of Vedder's requests. They contended the training manuals were protected copyright materials and fit the PRA's exception for "material essential to law enforcement." As to Vedder's other two requests, the SPD claimed it had no records responsive to her requests.

After those denials, Vedder made another PRA request, this time seeking actual copies of all dash-cam recordings that had been retained by the SPD. The SPD responded saying the state's privacy laws prevented their release.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Eric Rachner, a private citizen, requested and received from the SPD a list of all dash-cam recordings retained by the SPD -- the same request that was denied to Vedder a year earlier. After Vedder and KOMO learned of the Rachner disclosures, they filed suit against the City of Seattle for failing to produce records in response to three of their four requests. The trial court ruled that SPD acted within the PRA except for failing to provide the list of videos, and fined the city $25.00 per day from the day Rachner received his list of videos from the SPD. KOMO appealed, and the Washington Supreme Court granted direct review.

The court first noted that the PRA "mandates broad public disclosure," and that the "agency refusing to release records bears the burden of showing secrecy is lawful."

The court agreed with the trial court's denial of Vedder's request for the officer's log sheets, finding that indeed these records no longer existed and could not be produced. As to the list of "all retained videos," the Supreme Court also affirmed the trial court's finding of a PRA violation and a $25.00 per day fine.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision that the videos themselves were protected by Washington's Privacy Act. Under Washington law, when the PRA mandates disclosure and another statute is in conflict, the PRA trumps. Holding that the Privacy Act exception only applied when there was "actual, pending litigation," concerning a requested video, the court sent the case back to the trial court for further development of the facts.

The court also awarded KOMO attorney fees "on the claims it prevailed upon." See: Fisher Broadcasting v. City of Seattle, No. 87271-6 (WA S.Ct. 06/12/2014).               

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Related legal case

Fisher Broadcasting v. City of Seattle