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Lakewood (WA) Police Department Found in Violation of State Public Records Act

On May 25, 2016, Division Two of the Washington State Court of Appeals found that the city of Lakewood, Washington, and the Lakewood Police Department (LPD) improperly withheld documents in a Public Records Act (PRA) request and sent the case back to the trial court to determine the proper penalty. The court also ruled that the claims related to one of plaintiff's PRA requests was time-barred and upheld the trial court's dismissal of that claim.

The plaintiff, James J. White, made three PRA requests to the LPD, all asking for the same information. White is an attorney who was approached by a potential client seeking to file a civil rights case against the LPD stemming from the execution of a search warrant on the client's apartment. To investigate the client's claim, White submitted three PRA requests to the city and LPD.

The first two requests came a month apart in June and July 2012, while the third request was made in September of that year. Each request asked for any and all "documents/emails/communication/reports" pertaining to the search warrant of the client's apartment.

The city first claimed the requested documents were exempt from disclosure because they related to an ongoing investigation. To the second request, the city produced some redacted documents and claimed the same exemption for the rest. As to the third request, the city first claimed the requested records were exempt from disclosure, again citing on ongoing investigation, but then one year later provided the requested search warrants and affidavits.

That disclosure was actually made less than three weeks after White hired counsel and filed a PRA complaint in Pierce County Superior Court.

Washington law allows for a penalty of $0-100 per day for each day a PRA request goes unlawfully unfulfilled, and requires any PRA complaint to be filed within one year from the date of the last production of records or a valid claim of exemption. White asked the court to impose penalties and the city filed a motion seeking to dismiss the case as time-barred.

Following a hearing on the competing motions, the superior court dismissed White's claims on his first and second requests as time-barred, but then found the city in violation of the PRA by failing to timely provide responsive records relating to White's third request. The court imposed a penalty of $10 per day due to Lakewood's "negligent handling" of White's third PRA request.

White appealed, and the court of appeals found that the trial court erred in finding the first request was time-barred. The court said that the city's claimed exemption was invalid because there was, in fact, no ongoing or active investigation, and thus could not as a matter of law trigger the one-year statute of limitations. The dismissal of White's second request was upheld because the appellate court ruled that the city did fulfill part of White's request more than one year before he filed his PRA complaint with the court.

As to the third request, White claimed the trial court abused its discretion by imposing the $10 per day penalty. The court of appeals vacated the penalty award without agreeing with White's assertion. Instead, the court found that the trial court should have considered the seven mitigating and nine aggravating factors that the Washington Supreme Court held should guide a trial court in determining PRA penalties. See: Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, 168 Wn.2d 444, 229 P.3d 635 (2010).

Finally, White asked the court of appeals to award attorney fees. The court noted that White prevailed on one of his claims, lost on the other, and the third was still to be determined, and therefore directed the parties to submit additional affidavits and objections to the court, who will then determine the appropriate amount of attorney fees to be awarded. See: White v. City of Lakewood, No. 47079-9-11 (CA Wa.), May 25, 2016.

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Related legal cases

White v. City of Lakewood

Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims