Bench Bar Press Committee
2004 Report on Activities
Bench-Bar-Press Liaison Committee (Fire Brigade)
In 2004, the Fire Brigade dealt with matters arising in Benton/Franklin, Chelan, Clallam, Gray’s Harbor, King, Kittitas, Skagit, and Thurston Counties. As usual, courtroom photography and access issues cropped up in generally familiar patterns. Most were resolved and those that couldn’t be led at least to either some definite education of those involved or else the registering of an after-the-fact grievance that might or might not have educational value.
It is probably too early and too limited a sample to permit an accurate discernment of trends but, what the heck, we’ve rubbed elbows with enough journalists to call this the rough draft of the Fire Brigade’s history.
Cameras in Court. Interestingly enough, there seemed to be fewer incidents this year relating to unjustified or unexplained limitations on photography inside the courtroom. Looking at this optimistically, one is tempted to say that the talk of the impending amendment to GR 16 has raised the consciousness of those who would impose such limitations. If so, then the rule change is already producing the desired results, measurable in fewer restrictions and more explanations of those restrictions that are imposed.
Issues regarding photography and other media activity in courthouse hallways continue to arise, especially in older courthouses where in-custody defendants must be escorted through the same public spaces through which jurors pass. This leads to an understandable power struggle in which compromises can often be reached when the court and media are so inclined.
File Access. There was no letup this year in the number of court files and documents in court files that have been “sealed by agreement of the parties”. These result from judges being only too happy to salute the agreeable lawyers by not even considering casting a critical eye on their jointly proposed order before signing it. This occurs in family law cases (high profile divorces), in commercial litigation (ostensibly, to protect trade secrets) and in criminal prosecutions (e.g., appointment of defense experts). Much effort has been expended in reminding judges of the need to state reasons for any sealing (which presupposes that there has been an actual finding of such a compelling reason) and that the sealing be no broader in extent or duration than required to serve the interest being protected. It may very well be that, with the experience of the amendment to GR 16 behind us, the Bench-Bar-Press Committee should next propose adoption of court rules to spell out these requirements.
Access to Jail Information. A surprising number of issues arose involving news media attempts to get access to information in the custody of jail officials. The information sought included (a) booking data, (b) mug shots and (c) the arresting officer’s declaration of probable cause contained on the document usually called a “Suspect Information Report” or “SIR” or “Superform”. These disagreements occurred despite what would seem to be clear answers to each of the questions presented.
(a) The identity of jail detainees must be publicly accessible (based on common sense, the U.S. Constitution and R.C.W. 70.48.100(1)(a)).
(b) With the exception of convicted sex offenders, booking photos generally should not be released to the press or public (based on R.C.W. 70.48.100(2)&(3)).
(c) The sworn declaration of a police officer, upon which a judge relies when he or she makes a finding of probable cause for the arrest and then orders either continued detention or release on bail, is clearly a public document (based on the certain conclusion that it has become a court document rather than simply being a police or jail record).
Once again, in February, two representatives of the Fire Brigade spoke about its function at the statewide orientation program for new judges.
During the year, Brigade members have been actively involved in drafting, refining and lobbying for the proposed amendment to GR 16 that would provide trial judges with greater guidance in their exercise of discretion concerning cameras in court. As this goes to press, late in the year, chances for adoption look good.
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