Lawyer Jim Egan thinks he's figured out why City Attorney Pete Holmes is suing him for requesting public records. It's not, as Homes contends, to settle a legal question, since that's already being argued in another case and, in Egan's view, has already been settled by law. No, says the Seattle attorney, it's an attempt to stop him personally from seeking - and prevent the public from seeing - damning police video tapes.
The attorney released the vids to the media and made frequent local and national TV appearances in which he called on Mayor Mike McGinn to fire Police Chief John Diaz for failing to contain instances of misconduct and brutality.
Egan was also critical of the department's quasi-public internal investigations unit, concerned it was clearing officers in questionable cases. Most recently, an officer was cleared though a tape showed he threatened to "make up" charges against two suspects. (After Seattle Weekly reported that Kathryn Olson, the head of internal investigations, said the officer was just "bantering" with the suspects, the ACLU - in a letter last week to the mayor - cited Olson's remarks as helping create a "culture of disrespect" within SPD).
Though easily more than 80 other requesters have sought police in-car videos in recent years, Egan says, he's the first one to be sued for asking. That's because of his "comments to the media and the disclosure of previous videos to the public," he says.
He's prepared to make that argument at a scheduled King County Superior Court hearing tomorrow, where Holmes, while saying he's primarily concerned over a conflict between privacy laws and public record laws, nonetheless seeks to prevent release of more dash-cam vids.
As Egan states in newly filed court papers, Holmes chose to suddenly sue him over the privacy law issue even though that question is about to be answered in another case, brought by KOMO-TV (a summary judgement is set to be issued March 23).
KOMO attorneys confirm that is the same issue they're challenging, and are now seeking to intervene in the Egan case, saying the station's legal position "may be impaired by conflicting resolution of the central issue by two courts."
"As the city of Seattle has already admitted, " KOMO says in a brief in the Egan case, "the only question of law at issue" is an existing statute that creates "a blanket exemption of disclosure of police in-car videos for three years after their creation."
KOMO and Egan believe there truly isn't a divide between the Public Records Act (PRA) and other existing laws. As the PRA states, "in the event of conflict between the
provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this [PRA] chapter shall govern."
Holmes has said he's a believer in internal police transparency and his motivation in suing Egan was to resolve the legal question. Police vids can be released to those involved in an incident, or to their attorneys, but are otherwise deemed private and off limits for three years for viewing by others (vids are also routinely destroyed after three years).
Since that question was already being answered, Egan says, Holmes' suit against him was unnecessary and can be seen as striking back at those who aggressively pursue the facts.
It "creates a chilling effect on all citizens who are contemplating making a public records request to the SPD," says Egan. "What citizen would dare appeal a denial of a video request from the SPD when there is a possibility they will be served with a lawsuit by doing so?"
It's uncertain if a ruling will be announced tomorrow. Egan has countered Holmes' suit with a motion to strike the city attorney's claim and hand Egan attorney fees plus a $10,000 monetary award for prevailing in the case.