The public had the right to access the identities of sex offender litigants,

From today’s unprecedented decision in John Doe P v. Zinc:

After the district court allowed the plaintiffs to file suit under a pseudonym, it ordered them to file a sealed document containing their real names (Disclosure Document)…. We believe the record does not support the trial court’s conclusion that continued sealing was justified by pressing privacy or security concerns that outweighed the public interest in accessing court records….

In 2014, Zink submitted a Public Records Act (PRA) request to Thurston County requesting various sex offender records, including registration records, Special Sex Offense Sencing Alternative (SSOSA) evaluations, and Special Sex Offerer Disposition (SSODA) evaluations Alternatives). John Doe P, John Doe Q, John Doe R and John Doe S (collectively Does) sued to enjoin the county from releasing the documents. John Does P, Q and S are Tier I sex offenders (those classified as least likely to reoffend) who reported having complied with registration requirements. John Doe R said he was convicted of a sex crime in juvenile court, has completed treatment and has been released from the requirement to register. The Does argued that releasing the documents requested by Zink would cause irreparable harm because they would reveal the identities of sex offenders, like them, who were not required by law to be listed on the state’s publicly available website.

Zink ultimately largely prevailed on the substantive claims of the Public Records Act, after several decisions by appellate courts and the state supreme court (including John Doe A AND John Doe P II). And in this decision, the theory also prevailed according to which the documents in which Does identified himself before the court should have been made public:

“In determining whether court documents may be protected from public disclosure, we begin with the presumption of openness.” While “[o]penance is presumptive, … it is not absolute.” RG 15 establishes generally applicable standards for the sealing and redaction of court documents. Under GR 15(c)(2), a court may seal or redact a document only if ” the court makes and submits written findings that the specific seal or redaction is warranted by identified urgent privacy or security concerns that outweigh the public interest in access to court records.”…

Here, the 2021 district court findings state, in relevant part:

THE [Does] … have established compelling privacy and security concerns and a serious imminent threat of numerous forms of harm if their names were revealed, through their motion and … statements …, which sufficiently outweigh the public interest and [Zink’s] interest[ ] in the dissemination of [Does]’ identity.

But the data reflects this in 2019, after our Supreme Court ruled John Doe A that sex offender registration registries are not exempt from PRA disclosure, Zink received annual updates of a Washington State Patrol database that identified all registered Tier I sex offenders in Thurston County, including juveniles. It is undisputed that Zink made the database available online and shared it with others who requested it. He also archived a portion of the underlying database in response to Does’ 2019’s motion to remain pseudonymous. Meanwhile, this court found that most of the documents Zink had requested from Thurston County should be disclosed. The one after that is also undisputed John Doe P IIThurston County began releasing records to which Zink was entitled, including registration documents identifying Level I sex offenders.

In short, the information that the Does sought to protect by filing their lawsuit – their identities as sex offenders – became publicly available well before their September 2022 motion to keep the disclosure document sealed. Therefore, to support the conclusion that continued sealing of the disclosure document was warranted by pressing privacy or security concerns under GR 15(c)(2), the Does needed to identify privacy or security concerns specific to the their identity as plaintiffs in this case. , which is distinct from their identity as sex offenders.

The Does failed to identify such concerns. They submitted most of their supporting statements before our Supreme Court’s decision John Doe A, and describe only the expected harms associated with revealing their identity as sex offenders. Neither the DOs’ statements nor their experts explain why, given that this information was already publicly available, there remained some compelling privacy or security concern that overrode the presumption in favor of transparency and justified sealing the disclosure document.

However, the Dos argue that the new declarations filed in 2022 “articulate[ed] the continuing nature of their pressing security and privacy concerns if their names were to be released in association with the lawsuit.” But those statements did not identify any separate pressing privacy or security concerns related to their identities as plaintiffs. The evidence does not support the trial court’s conclusion that the Does met the requirements of GR 15(c)(2), so the trial court abused its discretion by ordering the disclosure document to remain sealed….

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