Investigatory exemption keeps 28-year-old murder records secret
WASHINGTON–All information contained in open and active police investigation files is exempt from disclosure, a divided state Supreme Court in Olympia ruled in late November.
In holding that a freelance journalist could not see records of the police investigation of a 28-year-old murder, five of the nine justices said that the exemption in the state Public Disclosure Act for information “essential to effective law enforcement” is a categorical bar to disclosure of the files.
In March 1994, freelance journalist David Newman requested access to the police files concerning the 1969 murder of Edwin Pratt, a prominent Seattle civil rights leader.
The King County Department of Public Safety, citing privacy concerns and potential interference with effective police work, withheld all information except a heavily redacted copy of the initial incident report.
Following the receipt of letters from public officials and interested citizens requesting disclosure of the records, the Department of Public Safety re-examined the investigative documents and re-released the incident report with much less information redacted. The Department justified the release as an investigative technique which might prompt someone to come forward with more information.
In order to compel further disclosure, Newman asked a superior court judge in Seattle to review the murder investigation file in chambers in order to determine which documents could be disclosed and to declare that the Department violated the disclosure act.
In May 1996, the judge found that the investigation files were not subject to a blanket exemption and ordered the files to be delivered to the court for inspection.
The county appealed the trial court’s decision directly to the state Supreme Court in November 1996.
The high court held that the “broad language of the statutory exemption requires the nondisclosure of information compiled by law enforcement and contained in an open and active police investigation file because it is essential for effective law enforcement.”
The Pratt file was active, the court found, because the FBI had personnel assigned to the case and because enforcement proceedings were contemplated.
A strongly-worded dissent declared that the majority opinion’s “primary flaw” was its failure to narrowly construe the “law enforcement exemption,” as required by the disclosure act. (Newman v. King County; Media Counsel: David Lawyer, Bellevue)