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Washington Sex Offender Records Not Exempt from PRA Disclosure

On April 7, 2016, the en banc Washington Supreme Court held that sex offender registration information is not exempt from blanket disclosure through requests filed under the state’s Public Records Act (PRA).

Washington resident Donna Zink submitted several PRA requests for sex offender registration information. She first requested a copy of the Washington State Patrol (WSP) “Sex and Kidnapping Offender Database.” A second request sought email correspondence between WSP and Benton County during a specified period. Her third request was to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), for sex offender registration forms for offenders with last names beginning with “A” and registration files for offenders with last names beginning with “B.”

WSP and WASPC stated they intended to release the records to Zink. Prior to doing so, however, WASPC notified affected Level I sex offenders that their records had been requested and were going to be released unless a court order enjoined them from doing so.

Under the Washington Community Protection Act, Level I sex offenders are deemed the least likely to reoffend.

Several Level I offenders, designated as John Does, filed two state class-action lawsuits seeking to enjoin the disclosure of their records. One suit named WSP and Zink as defendants while the other named Zink and WASPC. The trial court consolidated the cases.

Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 42.56.070(1) mandates that each government agency “shall make available for public inspection and copying all public records, unless the record falls within the specific exemptions of ... this chapter or other statute which exempts or prohibits disclosure of specific information or records.” The John Doe sex offenders argued that RCW 4.24.550 of the Community Protection Act was an “other statute” under the PRA that exempted the records from disclosure.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and entered a permanent injunction that enjoined disclosure of the records. Zink and WSP appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, and WASPC filed a supporting brief.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that “an ‘other statute’ exemption must be explicit” and courts “may not imply one.” Further, as “the legislature did not make it explicit, ... RCW 4.24.550 is not an ‘other statute’ under the PRA.” Therefore, Zink was entitled to disclosure of the records. The Court rejected her request for attorneys’ fees, costs and per diem fees because she did not prevail against the agencies, given that both WSP and WASPC had initially agreed to grant her request for disclosure.

One justice dissented, arguing that the Community Protection Act is an “other statute” under RCW 42.56.070(1) because it “bars blanket disclosure of the requested information and instead requires agencies to conduct a carefully crafted, specific, and individualized inquiry.” See: Doe v. Washington State Patrol, 185 Wn.2d 363, 374 P.3d 63 (Wash. 2016). 

Related legal case

Doe v. Washington State Patrol