A King County judge on Wednesday denied a restraining order to prevent the city of Seattle from posting records of six Seattle police officers participating in the January 6 pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC , which led to a deadly siege on the US Capitol.
“They went to Washington, DC, and attended a very public and publicized event,” said Supreme Court Justice Sandra Widlan, explaining why the officials’ privacy arguments to prevent disclosure had failed. “There is no case law that takes these circumstances into account. … The actions of the officials in this case were public, they are part of a public event. “
Widlan’s oral decision on Wednesday essentially means the city can release records identifying the officers – but not yet. After the officers’ request was denied, the judge agreed to extend a restraining order issued last month preventing disclosure for an additional seven days and allowing officers to appeal to the Washington Court of Appeals to lodge their decision.
Pending such an appeal, Widlan also agreed to expand the injunction to include not just the four public record requests that sparked the officials’ lawsuit last month, but all other record requests as well that contain information that reveals their identity.
The officers, identified only as John and Jane Do 1 through 6 in the briefs, filed a lawsuit on Feb.23 to block the release of police personnel and investigative papers of four people, including a KOMO news reporter, who kept the papers separately had requested under the state’s Public Records Act (PRA). The city volunteered to let officials know that it was ready to release the information if they hadn’t received a court order to stop it.
Kelly Sheridan, who was funded by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, had argued that the Public Records Act did not allow the records to be disclosed because they were part of an open investigation. Sheridan also said the law provides exceptions for privacy and constitutional freedom of speech.
All officials admitted to taking part in the so-called “Stop the Steal” rally held on January 6 to protest the results of the presidential election while they were off duty and as individuals exercising “their constitutional rights to freedom of expression , ”According to their lawsuit.
But Sheridan and the officials’ lawsuit alleged none of them participated in the riot at the Capitol or engaged in any kind of wrongdoing in Washington, DC
Two days after the Capitol riot, when pictures of two of the rally’s officials surfaced on social media, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz ordered every officer who attended the event to report their attendance themselves. Each of the six officers did so and have since been put on paid leave while the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigates whether they have violated any law or departmental rules.
The siege, which resulted in the search of the Capitol, caused lawmakers to flee on security grounds and resulted in the deaths of five people, including a federal policeman. This resulted in an ongoing FBI investigation with arrests and charges against several defendants, including numerous proud boys, oath guards, and others with links to extremist groups.
Each officer provided an affidavit describing their personal safety and professional reputation concerns if records were made public. They also claimed they were targeted, harassed and unfairly linked to those who had committed crimes at the Capitol, despite the lack of evidence that they had done something wrong.
Until and until allegations of misconduct are proven, there is no legitimate public interest in disclosing the names of public employees who privately attended a political rally, according to Sheridan.
“Public authorities should not be able to gather and release information about the private political activities of their employees,” Sheridan said on Wednesday.
Neil Fox, an attorney for Sam Sueoka, one of the four public record petitioners, countered that there was a legitimate public concern about the officials’ participation in the rally and none of the exceptions mentioned were specific to the situation.
“Public employees have First Amendment rights, but the police are not ordinary public employees,” added Fox. “We give them weapons and they have incredible powers. Police officers’ initial adjustment rights are limited if their off-duty behavior calls into question their commitment to professionalism and unbiased policing. The public has a right to know. “
Assistant prosecutor Carolyn Boies, who disagreed with Sheridan about the open investigation exemption for an investigation into alleged misconduct of employees outside of the workplace, said the city had taken no position on whether the officers had a right to privacy to block disclosure.
Instead, the city has voluntarily provided third party notification to officials, which is not required under Washington’s Records Act. This gave them the opportunity to try to prevent the records from being disclosed to the four applicants: Sueoka, Jerome Drescher, Anne Block and KOMO reporter Cristi Landes.
During their ruling, Widlan successively addressed and dismissed the officials’ legal arguments for each exemption from the Public Records Act, citing the case law as inapplicable in the circumstances. As she deliberated, the judge noted that she took the officers ‘security concerns “very seriously,” but said that no senior police or city officials came forward to support the officers’ allegations that they would be wrongly assaulted or harassed the records they would identify are published.
“Nobody but the officials themselves really say so,” said Widlan. “Anyone in this or a similar situation could come forward and definitely say so to (prevent disclosure) … and that is not within the meaning of the Public Records Act.”
However, the judge agreed with lawyers for both the civil servants and the city that the restraining order should be extended beyond the four in question to include all similar motions beyond the four in question so that the parties would not have to continually return to court.
Since officials filed a lawsuit last month, as of March 2, the city has received “no fewer than 25 additional PRA requests from 17 different applicants,” with new applications being filed “daily,” Sheridan noted in a brief report . The Seattle Times has at least four inquiries for active records on the matter.