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Originally published September 22, 2011 at 2:39 PM | Page modified September 23, 2011 at 4:49 PM

SPD fine overturned in public-disclosure case

The Court of Appeals has overturned a fine leveled against the Seattle Police Department by a lower-court judge who found the department had repeatedly violated the state Public Disclosure Act by withholding documents from a man who claimed he was assaulted by an off-duty officer.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Court of Appeals has overturned a fine leveled against the Seattle Police Department by a lower-court judge who found the department had repeatedly violated the state Public Disclosure Act by withholding documents from a man who claimed he was assaulted by an off-duty officer.

The court unanimously found the department had failed to adequately explain all of the reasons for withholding some information from the attorneys for Evan Sargent but said the violations were unintentional and that the $70,000 fine imposed in the case was "completely disproportionate."

The case was sent back to the King County trial court with orders to let the department explain the exemptions and to refigure the fines for the violations that did occur.

"It's a big win for SPD," said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for City Attorney Peter Holmes. "We're particularly pleased that the Court of Appeals, unanimously, determined that SPD did not act negligently or in bad faith."

The fight for the records in the Sargent case has been acrimonious, with one of Sargent's attorneys, former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, accusing Chief John Diaz and his department of engaging in a "full-blown cover-up" in withholding the documents.

McKay, contacted Thursday, said he was pleased that the court recognized the department had violated the disclosure act. He said he and his partners are reviewing the remainder of the decision, but that no decision has been made regarding an appeal.

"We are delighted the court found the SPD withheld documents, and did so in violation of the Public Disclosure Act," he said.

Sargent was 19 when he claims he was assaulted and threatened at gunpoint by off-duty Officer Donald Waters in West Seattle in 2009. Sargent sued after he was denied access to investigative files through a public-disclosure request.

Sargent said Waters, who was off-duty and in civilian clothes, confronted him in an alleyway that Waters was trying to use as a shortcut to avoid traffic. Sargent had parked his grandfather's truck in the alley, hazard lights flashing, to pick up a load of laundry for his mother's business.

Waters allegedly smashed the truck's mirror with his fist. When Sargent tried to protect himself by holding a baseball bat in front of him, Waters returned to his car, got a handgun, pointed it at Sargent and only then identified himself as a police officer, according to a letter McKay wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice about the incident.

The Court of Appeals ruled on several more technical points dealing with exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act. Most significantly, the appellate court determined that police agencies are not required to continually revisit a public-disclosure request when documents were initially denied, but a new request has to be filed each time the documents are sought. The court also said an exemption to the release of investigative documents to protect an active case applies to internal police investigations as well and criminal probes.

The judges, however, rejected the idea that the removal of the names of all witnesses to a crime should be categorical — an exemption used routinely by Seattle police and other departments to withhold identifying information of witnesses. The court also said Seattle police did not adequately justify several of the exemptions it did use to justify withholding the documents.

None of the violations was intentional, the court held.

"The trial courts finding of bad faith is not supported by the evidence," the judges wrote. "There is no showing that SPD was negligent."

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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