Mesa woman's public records lawsuit goes to judge

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldDecember 20, 2013 

A Tri-City judge said he'll make a decision in the coming weeks on whether low-level sex offender information will be released to a Mesa woman.

Judge Bruce Spanner listened to arguments from Tri-City lawyers and Donna Zink during a three-hour hearing Friday in Benton County Superior Court. The two sides argued whether personal information of Level 1 sex offenders is public information that can be released under the state Public Records Act.

Spanner said he needs time to review case law and the arguments before he makes his ruling in the next few weeks.

The decision -- which would come after months of legal battles -- will determine if Zink can receive the names, birthdays, phone numbers, pictures and other information of about 400 Level 1 offenders.

Registration information for Level 2 and 3 offenders, who are considered more likely to reoffend, is routinely posted on sheriff department websites.

Zink has argued that people have the right to know about any convicted sex offenders living or working near them.

There are several temporary injunctions preventing county and state officials from releasing the information.

Zink requested the information from Benton and Franklin counties in July. Franklin County released the information, but Benton County notified the Level 1 offenders and told them they had the right to challenge the release.

Lawyers hired by some of the sex offenders said their clients will face irreparable harm if the information is released and posted on the Internet.

John Ziobro -- a Richland attorney who represents 14 offenders -- argued at Friday's hearing that the information shouldn't be released because the registration forms are investigative records that are exempt from release.

Under state law, specific investigative records complied by law enforcement agencies are not considered public.

Ziobro said Kennewick Police Department officials told him they use sex offenders' registration forms during investigations. "These are used as a tool for law enforcement," Ziobro said in court.

Lawyers also argued that their clients' crimes were committed more than decades ago and the offenders believe they have paid their dues.

They told Spanner even though the offenders were convicted, they still have privacy rights and releasing their information could violate their constitutional rights.

The records also are exempt from release under other laws, including the Criminal Records Privacy Act, said Ben Dow, a Richland attorney whose firm represents 20 sex offenders.

Zink disagreed with the lawyers and argued the information clearly should be released under the Public records Act.

Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson agreed the information is public and should be released. Lukson previously has said the county is prepared to release the documents to Zink.

Zink argued that a lot of the information she requested is already available through online jail and court records.

She said the registration forms -- which contain almost all of an offender's information, including their Social Security numbers and where they work -- are not specific investigative records.

She argued the registration forms are not part of an ongoing investigation so they should be released.

Zink expressed frustration with Benton County and how the case has disrupted her life in a post on her Google Plus account. She wrote that had Benton County released the information, it "would have been a blip on an insignificant (Facebook) page."

"Had Benton County simply produced the registration forms and the list of names, as Franklin County did, I would have posted them on my (Facebook) page," Zink wrote on Tuesday. "All 72 of my (Facebook) friends would see I had posted something and moved on. Some might have clicked to see what was there depending on what they were doing or what was happening in their life."

Also during the hearing Friday, Spanner ruled that he needs to review installments of about 80,000 emails Zink requested from Benton County before they can be released. She asked the county for all emails involving denied requests for sex offender information.

The county had trouble narrowing the search and said it could take two years to go through the 80,000 results to make sure exempt information is not released to Zink.

Officials say the emails contain sensitive law enforcement information and sex offender information.

Spanner ruled that the information in the emails that does not pertain to sex offenders can be released to Zink.

Officials say the emails contain law enforcement information dating back to 2003. County officials, who have gone through less than 1,000 of the emails, may release the information to Zink next week, Lukson said.

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