YAKIMA, Wash. — A Yakima County judge has blocked the release of names and addresses of low-level sex offenders to a Mesa woman who wants to post the information on a website.
Ruling Friday, Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson permanently blocked Donna Zink’s request for low-level sex-offender registration forms from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office. The move had been sought by 22 low-level offenders who said releasing the information would subject them to public scorn and threaten their safety. The ruling covered all low-level offenders who comply with state law, such as registering with authorities, and have permanent addresses.
Zink, who would not speak to reporters afterward, said she would appeal Gibson’s orders, along with similar orders in Benton and King counties denying her requests for Level 1 offender information.
Level 1 sex offenders are considered the least likely to offend again, and their names are typically not posted publicly, except in rare circumstances, and then only released to those who have need for the information. The names of Level 2 and Level 3, those considered most likely to re-offend, are routinely released as they change addresses and are listed in public registries.
Zink filed the request with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office in November for the registration forms filled out by all Level 1 sex offenders in the county. Zink is trying to assemble a database to be posted online listing all known sex offenders in the state. The sheriff’s office was prepared to release the forms and notified the Level 1 offenders that the information would be made public. Several offenders filed suit to block the release.
As of Friday, there were 674 registered Level 1 offenders in Yakima County, according to a website maintained by the sheriff’s office.
Attorney Greg Scott, who represented the 22 offenders, argued the ruling should apply to all Level 1 offenders, noting that some couldn’t afford attorneys or did not want to step forward and risk exposure.
But Gibson limited his ruling to those in compliance with state law and with permanent addresses. The law allows the sheriff to post the names of transient and homeless offenders, as well as those who are not in compliance with the registration law.
Scott said Gibson’s prohibition on releasing the names would extend to future offenders, since the judge ruled that the forms were exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act.
Gibson based his decision on a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling that declared requiring a sex offender to register was not an additional punishment, as long as the state used an offender’s potential for offending again as a factor in determining who should be informed about their past crimes.
“The Supreme Court recognizes that the mere declaration that someone is a sex offender is harmful to the person,” Gibson said. “Even if your neighbor next door has been a good neighbor for 10 years, when you learn that they were a sex offender 20 years ago, it affects how you deal with them.”
Gibson said the fact that the Legislature put some restrictions on distributing Level 1 offender information suggests that it did not intend for the information to be released through public records requests. The law limits notification about Level 1 offenders to law enforcement, schools the offender might attend, and the offender’s victim and witnesses to the crime.
Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stefanie Weigand, who represented the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, said there was legitimate public interest in granting Zink’s request. She said the Level 1 classification may mean low risk, but it is not zero risk.
“If (the offenders) were not dangerous, they would not have to register,” Weigand said.
She also noted that their convictions are a matter of public record.
Weigand argued that the Legislature never defined the offender information as exempt under the records act.
While there are some restrictions on posting it to registries, she said it is not exempt from records requests.
Weigand also argued that Yakima County could be legally liable for not granting Zink’s request under the records law.
Zink, who argued her case herself, said Gibson’s ruling turned the registration law on its head, and instead of protecting the public, it was being used to protect offenders’ privacy.
She said it also violated a principle of the state Public Records Act in that if information is released to some people, it has to be released to all.