Privacy of library patrons tested by sex offender

By the Herald editorial staff

It stuck in our craw too.

A registered sex offender reportedly approached children at a Kennewick branch of the Mid-Columbia Library District, and library officials seemed less than cooperative with police.

The library, according to a spokeswoman, suspended the man's library privileges but refused to tell police anything about the suspect without a subpoena.

The Herald's report on the incident amounted to a few paragraphs in the Mid-Columbia briefs, but it was enough to draw angry remarks from a few readers.

"If they suspended his privileges, sounds like they knew there was a problem so what's the big deal about supplying info about him to the police?" said one of the comments attached to the online version of the article.

"Maybe a few folks ought to tell them who they work for ... us!"

Our initial reaction wasn't much different, but a closer look found more to the story.

After children complained about a library patron's behavior, police asked library officials about the suspect's identity.

The information investigators sought was contained in the library's circulation records, explained Kyle Cox, the temporary head of library operations.

But state law is clear on the issue: "Librarians and library employees shall not make available library circulation records to any agency of state, federal, or local government..."

An exception, according to the statute, is granted for authorities who obtain a subpoena. In other words, without a judge's order, libraries are required to keep private the information collected on their patrons.

As it turned out, Kennewick police were able to identify a suspect without accessing the library's circulation records. If a subpoena had been needed, police could have obtained one without much trouble.

In the end, Russell Rust, 20, was arrested for not complying with Level II sex offender restrictions, based on information gathered without looking into the library's circulation records.

The girls Rust allegedly bothered reported the incident to their parents, and then to police. They did the right thing, and it appears library officials did too.

Is a state law protecting library records a good idea? That's open to debate, but we think requiring authorities to first obtain a subpoena is a reasonable protection of our constitutional right to privacy.

The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans -- especially those suspected of crimes -- against unreasonable search and seizure. It's well established that our constitutional rights extend to our library records.

Regardless, library officials followed state law in this case.