Judge bars Benton County from providing data about sex offenders

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldJune 27, 2014 

A Benton County judge's signature Friday on four separate orders cleared the way for Donna Zink to appeal in her pursuit to get information on low-level sex offenders.

Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner has barred the county from fulfilling the Mesa woman's request for the names of more than 400 Level 1 sex offenders, their registration forms and letters sent to them after Zink first filed for the public records last year.

Spanner ruled in January that the personal information is confidential and could cause irreparable harm to the offenders if released, and made it official with Friday's permanent orders.

Sex offenders are classified based on their likelihood of reoffending, with Level 1 considered a minimum risk.

Zink has said she wants the information from Benton County, including addresses and pictures, to create a digital database so people can know if sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.

Benton County's position all along has been that records identifying Level 1 sex offenders aren't exempt and Zink is entitled to them, according to Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson. But a number of offenders, after learning of Zink's request, hired lawyers and asked the court to block the action.

Zink declined to put her signature on the permanent injunctions Friday because she objected to the court's findings.

Franklin County released its Level 1 data to Zink after her initial request.

There are injunctions in place in King and Yakima counties preventing release by multiple agencies and county officials.

Zink told the court Friday that those judges based their decisions on Spanner's earlier ruling, and advised that a petition for direct review on the King County matter was just filed with the Washington Supreme Court.

Spanner said he wanted to finalize the four Benton County civil cases at the same time so they can be consolidated before the state Court of Appeals in Spokane.

Zink already filed on three of the cases and a hearing was held in May, but the appellate court put the matter on hold pending a resolution in a Kennewick courtroom.

Despite the permanent orders signed by Spanner, only 15 of the sex offenders will be protected from a new records request Zink filed April 17 unless attorneys for the others take further civil action.

Zink is asking for all emails in Benton County sent between July 15 and April 17 concerning last summer's request for sex offender information. That includes any email sent from or received by a county email account about the issue, with the majority likely generated by the prosecutor's office and sheriff's employees discussing the classification or other details of specific offenders.

Lukson said essentially Zink wants to know what officials have been saying about her requests, "but unfortunately from a procedural standpoint (the emails) contain names of some of the sex offenders."

So even though Zink can't get the information she first asked for in July because of the court orders, she may be able to learn a good number of the identities through county email exchanges.

Attorneys Eric Eisinger and John Ziobro had their orders amended at the last minute to cover clients. If they are referenced in any emails, the county will have to give those documents to Spanner for confidential review and possible redaction before the records can be released.

Lukson told the Herald it could take the county up to a month to complete the email search for Zink's recent request.

Lawyers for the rest of the offenders could file challenges to the new request in that time.

In court Friday, Zink said she intends to make more requests to Benton County, which might further expose their clients and lead to more lawsuits.

"This case has to stop at some point and, unless the court is going to order me to stop making public records requests, I have a right" to keep doing it, she said.

She objected to the emails going to Spanner for review and possible redaction, and said he might as well prepare for another lawsuit because she can turn around and file another request tomorrow.

Spanner, at the end of the hearing, noted the future appellate process and wished all of the parties good luck.

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