Benton County sex offenders' privacy rights upheld

A Benton County judge ruled in favor of a small group of low-level sex offenders Friday, putting the public release of their personal information on hold for the time being.

However, the ruling doesn't protect more than 400 other offenders who are not represented by attorneys, said Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson. The county plans on releasing their information Sept. 6, unless the offenders are granted an injunction.

The personal information of a group of 12 sex offenders is not of a legitimate concern to the public and isn't necessary for its protection, Benton County Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner ruled.

Their attorneys recently filed lawsuits on their behalf. Spanner was skeptical at first, but found through legal research that registration information can be considered confidential, he said.

The county could face penalties under the Public Records Act if it doesn't release the data, Lukson said.

Donna Zink, the former mayor of Mesa, requested the information on July 15. She plans to put the offenders' information online once she receives it, she said in court. Franklin County has already released its list to her.

"The people have the right to know who the Level 1 offenders are," Zink said during the hearing.

Richland attorney Greg Dow wants to lead a class-action lawsuit that would provide representation to the rest of the offenders who don't have lawyers. Spanner declined to certify the class action during Friday's hearing, saying he hasn't been provided with enough factual information.

However, Spanner dismissed Dow's motion without prejudice, meaning he can re-file and the judge can consider it again.

Dow, who represents one offender already, was optimistic that he will be able to form a class action and potentially block the release of other offenders' information, he said.

"These are the guys who desperately need representation," he said. "They should be protected."

Zink objected to the class action, arguing that not all of the offenders are the same and they aren't so numerous that they all can't be contacted.

Since the county sent offenders letters notifying them of Zink's request, more than 150 have called the prosecutor's office and sheriff's office seeking an injunction, Lukson said. The letters, which contain offenders' names and addresses, also are being withheld from Zink pending the outcome of the case.

Lukson attributed the high number of offenders without attorneys to the complexity of the legal system.

"People just had no idea what they were doing or the means to do it," he said.

Zink has received hate mail and threats since her request was made public, she said in emails. She told the court that she has been harassed and her ferret recently died, though she didn't know if the animal's death was related to her case.

In an email to Dow, Zink explains that she feels like she is being treated as a criminal for making the requests and is on "high alert" around her house.

"My motto is that I might get hurt but I will go down fighting and I am not without resources," she said in the email. "I said I don't like automatic weapons since they are not necessary. I never said I didn't own a gun."