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High court: Penalty for state records violation too low

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  1. Freedom of Information
A nearly $124,000 fine slapped on Washington's King County is not penalty enough for "grossly negligent noncompliance" with a 1997 Public Records Act request, the…

A nearly $124,000 fine slapped on Washington’s King County is not penalty enough for "grossly negligent noncompliance" with a 1997 Public Records Act request, the state Supreme Court said on Thursday.

In its opinion in the case Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, the court said the $15 per day penalty was not severe enough for the county’s failure to produce public records in a timely manner, and that the trial court abused its discretion in setting the fine so low.  Public Records Act violations can lead to daily penalties ranging range from $5 to $100.

"The PRA is a forceful reminder that agencies remain accountable to the people of the State of Washington," Justice Richard B. Sanders wrote in an opinion for the majority. 

Armen Yousoufian originally requested information in May 1997 about a referendum on whether $300 million should be spent on a new football stadium in Seattle.  The county finally handed over the documents more than three years later, Yousoufian having spent months communicating with local officials about the request and ultimately filing a lawsuit over it.

According to last week’s opinion, both sides have since agreed that King County "repeatedly deceived and misinformed Yousoufian for years," lying about the location and availability of the requested documents.

A trial court found that King County could have complied with Yousoufian’s request within five business days; the court calculated a $5 per day penalty — the lowest possible — for the county’s misdeeds.  Yousoufian appealed twice; first, the Court of Appeals ruled the fine was too low and the trial court hiked up the fine to $15 per day.  Yousoufian then appealed again.

Sanders’s majority opinion also established a list of 16 factors for courts to take into consideration when enforcing penalties, including whether the staff was properly trained to handle public records requests and if the requester was given reasonable explanations for the agency’s noncompliance.

Michael G. Brannan, one of Yousoufian’s attorneys, said he hoped the state legislature "would establish an independent agency with prosecutorial powers to handle public-records cases," according to The Associated Press.

"There ought to be a way for citizens to have access to public records without having to hire a lawyer," he said, according to The AP.

Brannan and Rand F. Jack, both of Washington, represented Yousoufian.