Wash. judges block release of sex offender info

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - A woman from south-central Washington said she's not giving up her court fight after judges in three counties blocked the release of information about low-level sex offenders under the state's Public Records Act.

Donna Zink of Mesa, in Franklin County, said she wants to post the information about the Level 1 sex offenders - those least likely to re-offend - on her website, The Yakima Herald reported.

The most recent ruling against Zink came Friday, when Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson held that the information could not be disclosed. He cited a 1994 state Supreme Court opinion and noted the Legislature had placed limits on the disclosure of low-level sex offender information.

"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."

Zink said Saturday she has appealed a similar ruling in Benton County. In King County, a judge issued a temporary order blocking her from receiving the information from the Washington State Patrol, and oral arguments in that case are set for May 2.

Under state law, disclosure of registration information for Level 1 sex offenders, such as name and address, is generally limited to law enforcement agencies, schools attended by the offender, victims or witnesses of the crime, and people who live near the offender.

Law enforcement agencies routinely list the names of Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, those considered most likely to re-offend, as they change addresses.

Franklin County, where Zink lives, provided her with registration information of Level 1 sex offenders, she said. In Yakima County, the sheriff's office was prepared to release the information until 22 offenders sued to block it, saying it would subject them to public scorn and threaten their safety.

The Yakima County ruling prevents the release of information about low-level offenders who comply with state law, such as by registering with authorities, and have a permanent address. The sheriff can post the names of transient and homeless offenders, as well as those who are not in compliance with the registration law.

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.

Weigand argued that the Legislature never defined the offender information as exempt under the records act, and that Yakima County could be legally liable for not granting Zink's disclosure request.

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 members of the general public - such as those who live near the sex offender - it has to be released to all.