Level 1 offenders in Benton County without lawyers could have information released

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 13, 2013 

The majority of low-level sex offenders in Benton County could have their personal information released in the coming weeks.

About 400 offenders who have not hired attorneys were left unprotected Friday when Judge Bruce Spanner ruled against a class-action lawsuit. The move would have given the offenders legal representation and temporarily blocked the release of their personal information, which includes their names, pictures and addresses.

Twenty-one Level 1 offenders hired attorneys after Donna Zink of Mesa requested the offenders' personal information from Benton and Franklin counties under the state's public records law.

Zink requested the information July 15 and said she plans to post it on the Internet.

Information about higher-risk offenders, ranked a Level 2 and 3, is readily available to the public, but not for Level 1 offenders.

Lawsuits have been filed on the offenders' behalf, temporarily putting the release of their personal information on hold. A ruling on whether their information will be released could come in October.

Benton County is planning on releasing the other offenders' information within the next three weeks, said Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson.

Greg Dow, who filed a motion to lead the class-action lawsuit, believes Spanner's ruling is unfair to offenders and creates a headache for county officials, he said.

"I don't understand how you protect 20 people with lawyers and leave 400 people outside the stream of justice," said Dow, a Richland attorney. "It's just so offensive."

Zink, who declined to comment to the Herald, already has received similar offender information from Franklin County.

She also has requested a list of all Benton County sex offenders, letters the county sent to offenders notifying them of her request and the list of names the county used to send the letters.

Zink recently requested Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative forms and victim impact statements, Lukson said. The forms and statements contain offenders' personal information.

"She is very creative," Lukson said." She is just asking for the same information in different manners as she is entitled to do. It has added a complexity to the case that we are having to address these new records requests even though it is for the same information."

Lukson will notify attorneys representing the offenders of Zink's request, he said. The county is not prepared to release the new information requested by Zink.

During Friday's hearing, Dow told Judge Bruce Spanner he was willing to lead the class-action lawsuit pro bono. He also stated he was prepared to donate $10,000 in legal costs if the class-action lawsuit was allowed.

"I just feel there is something tugging at me on this case," Dow said.

After listening to objections from Zink and two other attorneys representing offenders, Spanner ruled against Dow.

Spanner said he had concerns about whether Dow could adequately protect the interest of the offenders while working for free, he said. He also stated the class-action would take away the Benton County Sheriff's Office's discretion to release offender information to the public.

The sheriff's office can release low-level sex offender information upon request if officials feel it is immediate and necessary to protect the public.

The county, represented by Lukson, was in favor of the class-action case.

"We wanted 400 and some sex offenders to be treated equally," Lukson said. "We think the (offenders') information is releasable under the Public Records Act. Either way Spanner ruled, we wanted to make sure it applied to everybody. The way it currently sits we're going to have to give out the records on the people who were not in court today."

For Dow to represent the rest of the offenders -- something he said he is passionate about -- he must try and join them together. Dow said he didn't know if he could ethically make an attempt to contact the offenders.

"How do I contact people who I don't know who they are or that I don't have any information about?" he said. "The class was going to solve that by saying everybody in this particular group of sex offenders is in."

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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