Public Records Act Requires Government Agencies to Identify and Explain Withholdings and Redactions With Particularity
In the recent decision, City of Lakewood v. Koenig, 2014 WL 7003790, the Washington Supreme Court reminds us of the powerful and important role that the Public Records Act (PRA) plays in ensuring government accountability. For government agencies, this case serves as a stern warning to provide meaningful and specific responses to PRA requests, particularly where information is being withheld.
The facts are straightforward: Koenig requested and obtained public records from the City of Lakewood regarding (1) the arrest and prosecution of a Lakewood Police Detective for patronizing a prostitute, (2) an auto accident where a police officer struck a pedestrian, and (3) the arrest and prosecution of a police officer for fourth degree assault. The city redacted, among other things, driver’s license numbers and birthdates from various documents it produced. The city justified the redactions by various citations to PRA exemption statutes, but refused to provide specific information to explain which statute applied to each redaction and why.
On appeal, the Court was asked to decide whether the City of Lakewood’s explanation for redacting driver’s license numbers was inadequate and, if so, whether Koenig was entitled to attorneys’ fees.
In the 5-4 majority decision, Justice Gonzalez answered “yes” to both questions. He first proclaimed, “the primary purpose of the PRA is to provide broad access to public records to ensure government accountability.” He then reminded us that “the PRA directs that its exemptions must be narrowly construed.” Further, “[w]hen an agency withholds or redacts records, its response ‘shall include a statement of the specific exemption authorizing the withholding of the record (or part) and a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record withheld.”
Thus, in the majority’s view, “the plain language of RCW 42.56.210 (3) and our cases interpreting it are clear that an agency must identify ‘with particularity’ the specific record or information being withheld and the specific exemption authorizing the withholding.” Additionally, “the agency must provide sufficient explanatory information for requestors to determine whether the exemptions are properly invoked.” Here, the majority concluded, the city failed to meet its PRA obligations:
The city either failed to cite a specific exemption or failed to provide any explanation for how a cited ‘other’ statute exemption applied to the redacted driver’s license numbers in the specific records produced. Consequently the burden was shifted to the requester to sift through the statutes cited by the city and parse out possible exemption claims. This was improper under the PRA.
Because the city’s response did not meet the requirements of the PRA, the Court also held that Koenig was entitled to his attorneys’ fees and costs.