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One week, two court decisions. Together, they illustrate contrasting attitudes toward the state's Public Records Act. And it all played out exactly how you'd expect

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Dash-Cam Ruling Hands Cops a Victory, But Mickey Gendler Case Suggests Supremes Won't Be as Understanding

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One week, two court decisions. Together, they illustrate contrasting attitudes toward the state's Public Records Act. And it all played out exactly how you'd expect after reading an accidentally released e-mail from an assistant Seattle city attorney involved in the fight to keep police dash-cam videos from the public.

Last Friday, King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers handed the city a puzzling victory in the dash-cam case, initiated by a KOMO-TV reporter who had requested a number of videos from the Seattle Police Department.

Rogers said that the city was entitled to sit on the request for three years because of a state law that prohibits such disclosure "until final disposition of any criminal or civil litigation" related to the events recorded. It's a tortuous argument since there were no pending suits, only the possibility, in the city's reasoning, that someone might sue. Since the statue of limitations is three years, that's how long the city says it must wait.

What makes this argument absurd, however, is that SPD policy allows for the destruction of videos after three years, meaning any member of the public who then wants them better be prepared to dig through the landfill.

Rogers called this policy of destroying videos, while simultaneously refusing to release them for three years, "unreasonable and contrary to law," that is the Public Records Act. Nevertheless, he declined to say what SPD's retention policy should be and said the city did indeed have a right to withhold videos for three years.

"I've read the ruling over 12 times," says KOMO attorney Judith Endejan, declaring herself baffled by the judge's reasoning. "If you can figure it out, you win a prize."

Yesterday, KOMO filed an appeal, seeking direct review by the state Supreme Court. The station may have better luck there.

That, at least, is the judgment of none other than the City Attorney's office itself. Last month, the office accidentally handed internal communication on the matter to attorney James Egan, who is involved in a separate fight with the city over dash-cam videos. Buried within the released digital files was an e-mail from Assistant City Attorney John Schochet opining that the city might win at trial level, but had less than a "50/50 chance" in the appellate arena.

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Schochet cited recent state Supreme Court cases that favored a broad interpretation of the Public Records Act--and yesterday that court proved his point. The Supremes ruled on a request by Mickey Gendler, an attorney who became a quadriplegic after a bike accident on the Montlake Bridge. Gendler, who believed a roadway flaw caused the accident and who ultimately won $8 million from the state in a mediated settlement, wanted records related to previous accidents on the bridge.

The state refused to turn them over unless Gendler would promise not to sue, claiming it had discretionary power because of a federal law that protects certain records from disclosure if they are related to safety reporting requirements.

Nope, said the Supremes. The Washington State Patrol was obliged to keep those records not just for federal reporting purposes but because of a duty, required by state law, to analyze accident reports. Then, revealing more about the Supremes' attidude toward public disclosure, they explained that the exemption based on safety reporting should be "narrowly construed because it impedes the search for truth."

The search for truth? That's lofty language, and it suggests the Supremes will indeed be a receptive audience for KOMO.

 
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