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

by Lonnie Burton

On May 25, 1016, Division Two of the Washington State Court of Appeals found that the City of Lakewood, Washington, and the Lakewood Police Department (LPD) illegally withheld documents in a Public Records Act (PRA) request and sent the case back to the trial court to determine the proper penalty. The appellate court also ruled that the claims related to one of the plaintiff's PRA requests was time-barred and upheld the trial court's dismissal of that claim.

The plaintiff, James T. White, made three separate PRA requests to the LPD, all seeking 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 search warrant on the client's apartment. To investigate the client's claims, White submitted three PRA requests to the City of Lakewood and the LPD.

The first two requests came a month apart in June and July of 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 documents were exempt from public disclosure because they related to an ongoing investigation. To the second request, the city produced some redacted documents, but claimed the same exemption for the remaining documents. On the third request, the city first claimed the requested records were exempt from disclosure – again citing an ongoing investigation – but then one year later provided the requested search warrant and affidavits White had sought.

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

Washington law allows for a penalty of between $0-100 per day for each day a valid PRA request goes unfilled. The law also 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 relating to his first two 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 application.

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

As to the third request, White claimed that the trial court abused its discretion by imposing just a $10 per day penalty. The Court of Appeals vacated the penalty award, without agreeing with White's reasoning. Instead, the court said 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's fees. The court noted that since White prevailed on one of his claims, lost on another, and the third was still to be determined, the parties were directed to submit additional briefing, affidavits and objections to the trial court, who will then determine the appropriate amount of attorney's fee to be awarded. See: White v. City of Lakewood, No. 47079¬9-II (C.A. WA), May 25, 2016.

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Related legal case

White v. City of Lakewood