Case Name: Does 1-6 v. Seattle Police Department
Court: Washington Supreme Court
Date Filed: Sept. 24, 2021
Update: In an order issued on Nov. 17, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court concluded that, due to new factual developments, review of the trial court’s order denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction was moot and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. However, it extended the trial court’s temporary restraining order prohibiting disclosure of the requested information for an additional 30 days to allow the trial court to consider any motion to extend the TRO pending further proceedings.
Background: Following news reports that the Seattle Police Department was investigating six Seattle police officers for potential involvement in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, a few individuals, including Seattle University law student Sam Sueoka, submitted requests to the Seattle Police Department under Washington’s Public Records Act seeking information about the investigations.
The city of Seattle informed the officers that it intended to release the requested records. The officers, proceeding under the pseudonyms Jane and John Does 1-6, responded by filing a reverse public records lawsuit seeking to enjoin release of the records, arguing, in part, that the public has no legitimate interest in the names of the officers or the records of the investigations unless and until any allegations are found to be substantiated.
The King County Superior Court denied the officers’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The officers appealed, and the case was ultimately transferred to the Supreme Court of the State of Washington.
Our Position: The Washington Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s ruling denying the officers’ motion to block the release of the requested records.
- The public has a vital interest in access to the names of police officers investigated for possible misconduct and to the records of those investigations, whether the claims of misconduct are deemed substantiated or unsubstantiated.
- News reporting on records of police misconduct investigations helps the public evaluate the work of police oversight boards and identify areas for reform. Access to the names of officers investigated for misconduct is an essential component of the public’s ability to carry out this oversight role.
- News reporting on records of police misconduct investigations helps foster accountability, which is necessary for trust between law enforcement and the public.
Quote: “[T]he public has a strong, legitimate interest in knowing whether the peace officers sworn to protect their communities have themselves engaged in criminal activity or participated in activities, such as a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, that not only violate the SPD code of conduct, but also raise broader questions about those peace officers’ fitness to serve.”
Related: In 2019, the Reporters Committee published a blog post about reverse public records lawsuits in California and how they harm the public’s right to know.