The names of people in police reports involving alleged crimes are public records subject to disclosure — even if the people are patients at Western State Hospital, a Pierce County judge ruled Friday.
“Police reports are not health care records, and suspects in criminal actions are not patients, insofar as law enforcement is concerned,” Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin said in a short oral ruling.
The decision represented a win for the City of Lakewood, along with The News Tribune, The Associated Press, the Seattle Times and other media outlets that intervened in the case.
It was also a loss for the state Department of Social and Health Services and Disability Rights Washington. The two entities sued the City of Lakewood earlier this month. They sought to prevent disclosure of information in a Lakewood police report requested by The News Tribune that identified a hospital patient charged with second-degree assault.
The patient, Christopher Adams Jones, allegedly attacked a nurse on Sept. 30 and bit off a portion of her ear. The police report states that Jones, 29, has a history of assaulting hospital staff and patients. Additional court records reveal that Jones has a record of encounters with law enforcement dating to 2008.
Appearing before Nevin last week, attorneys for DSHS and Disability Rights Washington argued that a state law governing confidentiality of mental health records required Lakewood to redact Jones’s name and other identifying information from the police report.
Assistant Attorney General Anne Miller said the state’s hoped-for restrictions would not prevent release of the entire police report — only the information that identified the patient.
The state and Disability Rights Washington also contended that such restrictions should apply to future disclosures.
Lakewood City Attorney Heidi Wachter disagreed with the state’s position, describing past legal debates over public disclosure as “a landscape littered with well intended people trying defend their policy about why things should not be disclosed.”
Wachter added that the city, not the state, would bear the legal expense of wrongly withholding records in a potential court battle.
“The city is reluctant to be the one who pays the tab for the state’s interpretation of the law,” she said.
Attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, representing the news organizations, said the names of patients identified in police reports were a matter of public interest.
She added that without such identifying information, news organizations and the public would not know whether the state and the hospital were taking appropriate actions to protect other patients and staff.
“Without the name, we have an anonymous person and they will never be able to connect the dots,” she said. “The relief they’re asking for actually puts patient safety at risk.”
Nevin waited a week to issue his ruling. When the time came Friday, he drilled down quickly.
“The pertinent question in this case is whether in this case a police report directly relates to a patient’s health care,” he said. “I do not believe that it does.”
Nevin singled out Earl-Hubbard’s arguments and said they were “of great substance, at least to me.
“911 is called. The Lakewood Police Department responds. A crime has allegedly been committed. There’s a victim. The victim’s been injured. There’s a suspect. The police investigate. That’s what police agencies do. That’s what they always do, and that’s what they’re doing in this particular instance.”
Nevin also addressed a secondary issue: a contract between Lakewood police and DSHS to provide law enforcement services at the state hospital. The city receives $90,000 for the service, according to the terms.
The state’s attorney had argued that the contract requires the city to notify the state when requested public records include information related to the state hospital. The contract terms theoretically required Lakewood to give DSHS 10 days to decide whether to object to the release of records, and 21 more days to prepare legal filings, creating a de facto 31-day disclosure delay.
Friday, Nevin said that aspect of the contract appeared to be invalid.
“As to the contract, it would appear to me to violate the Public Records Act.”