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Posts published in “Day: April 12, 2012”

Records public only if you won’t use them?

Here's the background to the public records case, in the endlessly perverse Michael Gendler v. John Batiste, out of the Washington Supreme Court today:

Michael Gendler is an attorney who was bicycling across Montlake Bridge in Seattle one day when his front wheel caught in the bridge's grating. He was thrown from the bicycle, hit his back and neck, and has been quadriplegic since. Wondering if the same sort of accident had happened to others, he started to research, found that some had, and asked the Washington State Patrol for accident reports on the bridge to find out more. After some back-and-forth, the WSP said it could provide a historic list of accidents on the bridge; Gendler would have to fill out and sign a form to request it. When the attorney in him looked at what he was being asked to sign, he found this: "I hereby affirm that I am not requesting this collision data for use in any current, pending or anticipated litigation against a state, tribal or local government involving a collision at the location(s) mentioned in the data."

In other words, if he signed and got the information, he wouldn't be able to use it in the meaningful way. (Of course, if he hadn't been a lawyer, he might have signed away his right to legal action without knowing he had done so.)

Gendler said this was no fair, and took the WSP to court. The state patrol has fought him all the way up, from trial court to the court of appeals and the Washington Supreme Court Court where, today, it lost for the third time in a row.

The legal resolution of the case was actually fairly complex, because the patrol said the records were gathered in part for federal highway safety purposes which it said have a limitation on legal liability.

That the Patrol failed in this argument probably saved it from some high perversity: Keeping secret records gathered for the purpose of fostering road safety, from a man injured in a road accident seeking the records specifically to press for greater road safety.

Someone in Washington government really ought to start thinking through this kind of thing.