The personal information of thousands of low-level sex offenders could soon become public after Washington’s highest court ruled in favor Thursday of releasing a statewide database to a Mesa woman.
The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision reverses a ruling in King County Superior Court that the Washington State Patrol couldn’t release the names, addresses and other information of Level 1 sex offenders to Donna Zink.
The decision clears the way for Zink to reveal the identities of thousands of Level 1 offenders, considered the least likely to reoffend, whose names were previously protected by law enforcement agencies.
The State Patrol plans to release the records once its lawyers clear the agency to do so, said Kyle Moore, public information officer.
Zink, who told the Herald she was pleased with Thursday’s announcement, plans to post the list of names online once she receives it.
“It is just a Google page with a list of names and links so people can easily see what was done and decide for themselves,” she said in an email. “Some of the records I won’t publish in their entirety.”
Zink requested the information of more than 21,000 sex offenders, more than half of whom are classified as Level 1, from the State Patrol in November 2013, officials said. She previously requested similar information for more than 400 Level 1 offenders in Benton and Franklin counties.
Their information is not posted online like Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, who officials say pose a greater risk to reoffend. Officials report there are 582 Level 1 offenders in Benton and Franklin counties.
Several courts, including in Benton County, had previously ruled the records were not public and denied Zink’s requests to obtain the information.
Lawyers argued the records were exempt under the Community Protection Act, would cause irreparable harm if released and weren’t necessary to protect the public.
However, the Supreme Court determined Level 1 sex offender records are not clearly protected under the Community Protection Act and are public information. The court also ruled Zink would not be awarded any money for the delay in the records being released.
“There is no language in the statute that prohibits an agency from producing records,” Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote in the decision. “Even the language of (that statute) — which the (sex offenders) argue is the portion of the statute that exempts sex offender registration information from production — is permissive.”
The state American Civil Liberties Union, which argued to keep the records private, issued a statement Thursday expressing concern the decision could greatly impact the lives of low-level offenders. Many are juveniles or committed crimes when they were underage.
“Being identified publicly as a sex offender puts individuals at risk of being harassed, assaulted, or losing jobs and housing,” wrote Jennifer Shaw, deputy director, in an email to the Herald. “For individuals considered unlikely to reoffend, being labeled publicly as a sex offender creates a stigma that makes it very difficult for them to proceed with their lives.”
Richland attorney Greg Dow, who represents about 20 Level 1 offenders, blasted the Supreme Court’s decision.
Dow agreed with the ACLU’s assertion that his clients’ jobs, marriages and friendships could be destroyed by the release.
The attorney has encountered clients whose crimes were committed as juveniles when laws were stricter regarding the age of consent, he said.
Dow also took issue with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Community Protection Act.
“They basically ran a sword through the Community Protection Act, he said. “I don’t think intentionally, but now the Community Protection Act is basically meaningless.”
The two justices who voted against making the records public, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Charles K. Wiggins, wrote there is “overwhelming evidence” the offenders will face the threat of being harmed, lose out on work and become stigmatized.
The release of information could also thwart rehabilitation efforts.
“The record also contains declarations from several experts in the field of sex crime prevention that describe the negative impact that blanket disclosure of Level 1 offender information would have on victims’ recovery and offenders’ incentive and ability to comply with treatment,” McCloud wrote.
Zink has been receiving some sex offender information from Benton County through requests she’s made. She has already begun posting sex offender information online.
Zink has numerous requests pending throughout the state regarding sex offender information. She does not plan to withdraw any of them due to Thursday’s decision, she said.
Zink, the former mayor of Mesa, sued the city in 2003 for withholding public documents she requested. The city offered her a settlement in 2012 of more than $200,000. She turned the offer down.
Zink’s many requests have taken up much of her time these last few years, but she will continue to press agencies to release records she believes are public, she said.
“I’d say I’m the busiest law office (ever) that is not a law office,” she said. “It is very involved. But having spent this much time on it, I know a lot about how our courts work and don’t work.”