Public Access vs. Personal Privacy

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While recent legislative developments have expanded public access to federal records, there is an unusual and extreme case developing in the state of Washington that may test the boundaries and principles of public access to official government records. From the Associated Press via on February 1, 2008:

Allan Parmelee’s hundreds of requests under the state’s Public Records Act have become so numerous, and so creepy, that a prosecutor has taken the extraordinary step of asking a judge not only to let his office ignore Parmelee’s pending requests, but to bar him from filing any more.

Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall heard arguments Tuesday in the case, which tests the limits of the disclosure law. The judge gave Parmelee two weeks to submit additional written arguments and said she would rule after that.

One of the unusual aspects of the case is the nature of the requests, which according to The Associated Press include “photos and personnel records of three deputy prosecutors”, “video or other electronic images of two Superior Court judges” and “”working hours, schedules … (and) photographs in color” of eight current and former assistant attorneys general.” The Associated Press reports that previously, limits have been set on public access to records:

The state has won previous orders against disclosing specific information to Parmelee, such as photographs of corrections staff, but for an agency to seek to bar someone from exercising his rights under the Public Records Act is “extraordinary,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle open-government lawyer.

Much personal information is exempt from disclosure under the law, but agencies can’t decide to release public information to one person and not another, she said. Furthermore, there’s no limit on how many requests someone can file.

And that additional limits may exist if the records are used for an illegal purpose:

But the state can prosecute Parmelee if he is using the information to harass or stalk people from prison, Earl-Hubbard said.

The Seattle Times reports on January 29, 2008:

An agency or public employee may seek a court order blocking the release of certain information if that disclosure € though otherwise allowed under the law € is not in the public interest.

On February 1, 2008, Yahoo News describes a previous incident involving unrestrained access to public records:

In 2004, Parmelee was convicted at his second trial of first-degree arson in the firebombing of one vehicle belonging to his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer and another belonging to a lawyer who represented his roommate’s ex-girlfriend. His first trial ended in a mistrial because he was found to have personal information about the jurors.

(emphasis added)

Via, from a list of online court record search links that include access to the Washington Courts Name Search, a search for “Allan Parmelee” yields information related to “79 public non-sealed cases.” Given the level of access to records that Mr. Parmelee has demonstrated, it seems appropriate to point out that there are online resources available to help the public learn more about his public records as well.

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