June 11, 2012
NEWS TRIBUNE: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORT -
YELM COURT HINDERED PUBLIC FILES ACCESS -
LACK OF TRAINING? WHY?
Yelm Public Safety Building & City Council Chambers
This excellent investigation was written by Sean Robinson in yesterday's Tacoma News Tribune, which raises several questions:
1. Why was a newspaper investigation required to get local accountability and changes enacted?
2. Yelm court administrator Maryam Olson said said the rules of access can be confusing. She added, "There hasn’t been a general training. It’s just kind of been this gray area."
WHY, WHY is there a lack of training and why is this a grey area in Yelm.
So many other municipalities throughout Washington have no issues about public access.
Why is this so "grey" for Yelm staff?
Sean Robinson filed his report in the Tacoma News Tribune June 10:
"Open courts, closed files: Hitting roadblocks in quest for public records"
"A NEWS TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE: Some workers toss up roadblocks when asked to provide records that are, by law, open to the public"
"It’s right there in the Washington state Constitution, article I, section 10:
Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.”
The words apply to courts and court case records. Both are supposed to be public: no secret trials, no secret files.
Several small courts in the South Sound, including half of the courthouses in Pierce County, fell short of that state standard in a recent survey of 22 district and municipal courts conducted by The News Tribune.
In municipal courts from Sumner and Fircrest to Lakewood and Yelm, among other sites, court clerks denied, hindered or delayed requests to view case records. They gave reasons that contradicted legal requirements set down by the Washington State Supreme Court."
"RECORDS BELONG TO PUBLIC
Court records cover big stuff and small stuff, from Supreme Court rulings and homicide charges to small claims and parking tickets. The records – rare or common, momentous or trivial – belong to the public.
“The public shall have access to all court records except as restricted by federal law, state law, court rule, court order, or case law.”
- General Rule 31(d)(1), Washington state courts
In the real world, that means you have the right to walk into a courthouse in Washington – any courthouse – and satisfy your curiosity. You’re entitled to read case files tied to the crazy driver up the block who got popped for three DUIs in three cities in eight months.
You don’t have to say why you want to see the files. That doesn’t matter. Maybe the guy ran over your dog.
According to the court rules, you don’t need a reason. You don’t have to be an attorney. You don’t have to be a party to the case. If it’s part of the official court file, and a judge hasn’t sealed it, you get to see it.
What’s more, you get to see it for free.
'A fee may not be charged to view records at the courthouse.'
- General Rule 31(d)(3), Washington state courts"
"At Yelm Municipal Court, clerks denied access to a court file. They said it was a “pending case,” and therefore the charging statement and the underlying police report were confidential. They referred the records request to the city prosecutor.
The case was a third-degree theft charge, filed March 15 against a 30-year-old Tacoma man who entered a not-guilty plea.
Tim Ford, open-government ombudsman for the State Attorney General’s Office, said such denials run counter to the rules governing access to court files. When a prosecutor files a charge, the courtroom door opens.
“Once (police) have concluded their investigation and provided a charging recommendation to the prosecutor and the prosecutor charges in court, then the investigative file is no longer exempt in general,” he said. “Case files are presumed to be open to the public unless they’re sealed by a judge.”
Following the denial in Yelm, court administrator Maryam Olson said the court has revised its access policy in light of The News Tribune’s concerns.
“Changes have been made in this office regarding procedures,” Olson wrote in an email. “The court files will be available to view at the front counter whether in pre- or post-disposition status with the exception of treatment reports, financial affidavits, and no contact orders. These will be removed prior to viewing. ...
“I have advised court staff of these new procedures and they are in effect immediately.”
Olson added that police reports tied to a case sometimes remain in the prosecutor’s files. Unless they are entered as evidence, they must be requested separately."
"Maryam Olson, the Yelm court administrator, said the rules of access can be confusing.
'It’s always been kind of a murky point,' she said. 'I think that’s the issue. I don’t think it’s holding back the information. There hasn’t been a general training. It’s just kind of been this gray area. We don’t want to hold back anything that’s public, but we also want to protect what’s not. We definitely want to comply – we just want to figure out what we can and can’t do,'"