Seattle sues attorney over public records request

SEATTLE -- On the heels of a scathing federal review of Seattle police practices, dash-cam video is once again at the center of a firestorm at City Hall.

This time, the city is suing an attorney who wanted dash-cam videos connected to alleged police misconduct.

KOMO News sued the city of Seattle after public information requests for police dash-cam video were not fulfilled. The suit alleges violation of the public records law.

But criminal defense attorney James Egan never expected the city would preemptively sue him just for asking for police dash cam video.

"Shocked. I am shocked," he said. "What the police department is saying is if you make a request for public documents, ultimately you will be sued."

The situation involves two cases Egan handled pro bono. He believed the videos in each case show officer misconduct. Egan wanted to know if those officers had other questionable arrests, so he asked for 36 additional dash-cam videos.

But the city refused, citing privacy laws. Egan appealed, and now the city is suing him.

"This is ridiculous. It would be comical if it weren't alarming," he said.

Egan believes the city is retaliating for making these other videos public.

"I kind of expect for something like this that they really do have something to hide," said Egan.

But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who filed the lawsuit, says the city is caught between two conflicting laws.

"There's a plain conflict in the laws between the Public Records Act (and) the Privacy Act. The city will pay dearly if it makes the wrong choice," said Holmes.

When asked whether an attempt was made to cover up the 36 requested videos, Holmes said, "None whatsoever."

The dash-cam videos can be critical in ferreting out officer misconduct. The U.S. Department of Justice reviewed hundreds of these clips in determining that the Seattle Police Department had problems with excessive force.

Holmes says before police start releasing dash-cam videos, they need a judge's guidance on the conflict between privacy laws and public disclosure laws.

"We're going to work with the DOJ on these broader issues regarding SPD," said Holmes, adding improvements will not be made "if we start deciding which laws we're going to enforce and which ones we're not."

The city argues it doesn't have to release any videos for three years. That also happens to be when the statute of limitations runs out for suing the city and, as a KOMO News investigation discovered, it is also when dash-cam videos are routinely erased from the system.