Public Records & Inmates

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In Department of Corrections v. McKee, the WA Court of Appeals held that state law prevents jail inmates from making prolific records requests for the purpose of suing the agency and profiting financially.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Jeffrey McKee is an inmate in the custody of the Washington State Department of Corrections (the Department). Since 2006, he submitted at least 336 requests to the Department under the Public Records Act (PRA). The Department filed a lawsuit against McKee and sought a preliminary injunction to stop Mr. McKee from filing further requests. It argued RCW 42.56.565(2)(c)(i) applies when an inmate makes prolific records requests for the purpose of suing the agency and profiting financially.

The trial court disagreed and interpreted the statute as being limited to situations in which inmates seek the private information of agency employees to harass those employees. The trial court therefore generally denied the Department’s request for an injunction.

After the trial court entered its order, the Department filed a motion in the Court of Appeals
for discretionary review.

ISSUE

On appeal the issue was whether Mr. McKee’s requests were made to harass or intimidate the agency or its employees.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Given the plain language of the statute, the Court of Appeals held that an inmate’s requests for public records may be prohibited if the request or requests are burdensome and made for financial gain.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the PRA is a “strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records.” It requires all state and local agencies to make any public record available for public “inspection and copying” on request, unless the record falls within certain specific exemptions.  The policy behind this law is that “free and open examination of public records is in the public interest.” To promote this policy, the PRA is to
be “liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed.”

However, the Court also acknowledged that in 2009, the legislature enacted RCW 42.56.565 to address abusive requests for public records by inmates. This statute authorizes courts to prohibit the “inspection or copying of any nonexempt public record by persons serving criminal sentences in state, local, or privately operated correctional facilities” if the court finds that one of following four situations applies:  (1) The request was made to harass or intimidate the agency or its employees; (2) Fulfilling the request would likely threaten the security of correctional facilities; (3) Fulfilling the request would likely threaten the safety or security of staff, inmates, family members of staff, family members of other inmates, or any other person; or (4) Fulfilling the request may assist criminal activity.

The statute then gives a nonexhaustive list of factors a court may consider in deciding whether to enjoin an inmate’s past or future records requests under RCW 42.56.565(3). These factors include: (1) other requests by the requestor, (2) the type of records sought, (3) statements offered by the requestor concerning the purpose for the request, (4) whether disclosure of the requested records would likely harm any person or vital government interest, (5) whether the request seeks a significant and burdensome number of documents, (6) the impact of disclosure on correctional facility security and order, the safety or security of correctional facility staff, inmates, or others, and (7) the deterrence of criminal activity.

The Court further reasoned that when an inmate files prolific records requests and sues an agency, the statute ensures the agency will not have to pay penalties in the event it makes a good faith error in responding. However, even if the agency is not required to pay penalties, it is still obligated to respond to future requests.

“This is still burdensome and expensive, even if the agency does not have to pay penalties,” said the Court of Appeals. Consequently, the Court reasoned that in order to alleviate these burdens and expenses, the statute allows the agency to stop the inmate from making future requests, just like the Department did here.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling on behalf of Mr. McKee.