From today’s nonprecedential decision in John Doe P v. Zink:

After the trial court allowed the plaintiffs to litigate in pseudonym, it directed them to file a sealed document containing their actual names (Disclosure Document)…. We hold that the record does not support the trial court’s finding that continued sealing was justified by compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweighed the public interest in access to court records….

In 2014, Zink sent a Public Records Act (PRA) request to Thurston County seeking various sex offender records, including registration records, special sex offender sentencing alternative (SSOSA) evaluations, and special sex offender disposition alternative (SSODA) evaluations. John Doe P, John Doe Q, John Doe R, and John Doe S (collectively Does) sued to enjoin the county from releasing the records. John Does P, Q, and S are level I sex offenders {those classified as the least likely to reoffend} who alleged they complied with registration requirements. John Doe R alleged he was convicted of a sex offense in juvenile court, had completed treatment, and had been relieved of the duty to register. The Does alleged that releasing the records Zink requested would cause irreparable harm because they would reveal the identity of sex offenders, like themselves, who were not statutorily required to be listed on the state’s publicly available website.

Zink eventually largely prevailed on the substantive Public Records Act claims, after several different decisions of appellate courts and the state supreme court (including John Doe A and John Doe P II). And in this decision, she also prevailed in her argument that the documents in which Does identified themselves to the court needed to be made public:

“In determining whether court records may be sealed from public disclosure, we start with the presumption of openness.” While “[o]penness is presumptive, … it is not absolute.” GR 15 sets forth generally applicable standards for sealing and redacting court records. Under GR 15(c)(2), a court can seal or redact a record only if “the court makes and enters written findings that the specific sealing or redaction is justified by identified compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest in access to the court record.” …

Here, the trial court’s 2021 findings state, in relevant part:

The [Does] … established compelling privacy and safety concerns and a serious imminent threat of numerous forms of harm if their names are revealed, through their motion and … declarations …, that sufficiently outweigh the public interest and [Zink’s] interest[ ] in the disclosure of the [Does]’ identities.

But the record reflects that by 2019, after our Supreme Court held in John Doe A that sex offender registration records are not exempt from PRA disclosure, Zink was receiving yearly updates of a Washington State Patrol database identifying all level I sex offenders registered in Thurston County, including juvenile offenders. It is undisputed that Zink made the database available online and shared it with others who requested it. She also filed a part of the database below in response to the Does’ 2019 motion to remain under pseudonym. Meanwhile, this court held that most of the records Zink requested from Thurston County had to be disclosed. It is also undisputed that after John Doe P II, Thurston County began releasing the records that Zink was entitled to, including registration records identifying level I sex offenders.

In short, the information the Does sought to protect by filing their lawsuit— their identities as sex offenders—became publicly available well before their September 2022 motion to keep the Disclosure Document sealed. So, to support a finding that continued sealing of the Disclosure Document was justified by compelling privacy or safety concerns under GR 15(c)(2), the Does needed to identify privacy or safety concerns specific to their identities as the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, which is distinct from their identities as sex offenders.

The Does failed to identify such concerns. They filed most of their supporting declarations before our Supreme Court’s decision in John Doe A, and they describe only anticipated harms associated with revealing their identities as sex offenders. Neither the Does’ nor their experts’ declarations explain why, given that this information was already publicly available, any compelling privacy or safety concern remained that outweighed the presumption in favor of openness and justified sealing the Disclosure Document.

Still, the Does claim that new declarations they filed in 2022 “articulat[ed] the on-going nature of their compelling safety and privacy concerns if their names were to be released in association with the lawsuit.” But those declarations did not identify any separate compelling privacy or safety concerns related to their identities as plaintiffs. The evidence does not support the trial court’s finding that the Does satisfied the requirements of GR 15(c)(2), so the trial court abused its discretion by ordering that the Disclosure Document remain sealed….

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