City of Tacoma Hit with $50,000 Fine for Violating Open Records Law

Mar 17, 2017

Last fall, privacy rights activist Phil Mocek and his Center for Open Policing filed a lawsuit against the City of Tacoma after it had refused to provide an unredacted version of its Stingray non-disclosure agreement with the FBI. Stingray is a warrantless police surveillance system that uses cell tower emulators to identify, locate, and track cell phones. The FBI provides Stingray technology to local police agencies, which are required to sign detailed non-disclosure agreements forbidding police to talk about how they are operated – and to drop criminal charges where necessary in order to prevent disclosure of the surveillance methods in court.

The documents Mocek received through his public records request had been redacted to the point of being unreadable. According to city officials, the redactions were imposed at the urging of the FBI. The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson ordered the City to pay a $50,000 fine and legal fees for this violation of the Washington State Public Records Act.

The Judge “said that this was a paradigm case in which the city favored its interest in maintaining good relations with the FBI at the expense of the public’s right to open government under the Public Records Act,” stated attorney David Whedbee, who represented the Center for Open Policing.