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Washington Prisoner’s State Public Records Act Lawsuit Results in His Freedom and $111,194 Award

Jimi Hamilton had already gained notoriety when he married a former jail guard in nearby Pierce County while awaiting sentencing for bank robbery in 2007. Then, while serving a 14-year term for that crime, Hamilton was charged with a second-degree assault that left another guard with broken bones in his cheek and jaw. A jury convicted him in October 2014, and since this was his “third strike” under state law, Hamilton was facing life in prison.

He got a temporary reprieve when a state appeals court tossed the conviction in 2017 for improper questioning at trial of the only expert witness called on Hamilton’s behalf. While awaiting a retrial in 2018, he made a public records request for video files from the county jail on the day of the alleged assault.

The county instructed him to complete and sign a form that said the request was being made pursuant to the “Jail Records Act.” But that is, in fact, a non-existent statute. And if Hamilton had signed it, he might have then forfeited his right to the material under the state’s actual Public Records Act (PRA).

Hamilton refused to sign the form and instead filed a complaint under the real PRA to compel Snohomish County to provide the video material. The county refused and stood by its demand for a signed request form. That’s when Seattle attorney William John Crittenden joined the fray, representing Hamilton.

Before King County Superior Court Judge Ken Schubert, he argued that the reference to the nonexistent law was intentionally misleading. The county replied that the term “Jail Records Act” should be understood as shorthand for the City and County Jail Act and that any misleading was unintentional. But the judge wasn’t buying it.

“The county acted in bad faith,” Schubert ruled.

By August 2019, the county’s website had been scrubbed of any reference to the nonexistent law.

“We learned our lesson,” said County Prosecutor Adam Cornell.

Yet the county still failed to provide Hamilton with all the requested records – because some had been destroyed. In November 2019, Superior Court Judge Eric Lucas dismissed Hamilton’s criminal charges after finding the state failed to preserve evidence useful to the defense. Hamilton was freed from jail.

Two months later, at the conclusion of his PRA case, Judge Schubert awarded him a penalty of $7 per day that each page of material was denied in all seven of Hamilton’s PRA requests – 60 pages, denied nearly 130 days, for a total of $55,034. It also granted attorney fees of $450 per hour for 124 hours for a total of $55,800, adding an additional award of $360.45 in costs.

Since Hamilton’s case, the county has found not only the improperly handled PRA requests for the other 127 prisoners but also 233 more. See: Hamilton v. Snohomish County, Case No. 18-2-575598-SEA, King Co. Sup. Ct., Wash. 


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Related legal case

Hamilton v. Snohomish County