Public records battle over sex offenders’ forms attracts attention

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A case making its way through the Benton County Superior Court may bring some clarity to whether information about low-level sex offenders contained in registration forms can be released under the state’s Public Record Act.

The request for the information by Donna Zink, a citizen who wanted to post the material on her Facebook page, sparked months of legal battles. Zink said she believes people have a right to know about convicted sex offenders living or working near them.

Lawyers hired by some of the sex offenders said their clients will face irreparable harm if the information is released and posted on the Internet.

Registration information for Level 2 and 3 offenders, who are considered more likely to reoffend, is routinely posted on sheriff’s departments’ websites, according to a story by the Tri-City Herald.

To put the best possible spin on the argument, a Richland lawyer for 14 of the sex offenders, John Ziobro, said the registration forms are investigative records that are exempt from release.

Nice try, but information from the registration forms are already available in various forms and are posted through jail and court records.

The registration forms are not part of an ongoing investigation so that argument falls short.

Ziobro also said the crimes were committed more than a decade ago and the offenders have paid their dues.

It is understandable the Level 1 sex offenders don’t want to publicize where they live and work. They have spent their time behind bars, are less likely to commit new crimes than other sex offenders and are trying to put their lives back together.

They deserve the chance to do that. Anyone using this information to harass these individuals would themselves be committing a crime and should be prosecuted.

But the speculation of what could happen isn’t the issue. The issue is: Is this registration information a public record and thus available to the public?

Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson told the Tri-City Herald he agrees the information is public and should be released. We believe he is right.

However, like all public records, there could be portions that should be protected from release, such as Social Security numbers. The law already makes provisions for redacting such information while making the rest of the document available to the public.

It is unfortunate that by fighting the release of public information, these sex offenders may have proved to be their own worst enemy. By drawing attention to this situation, more people are now interested in the information.

“Had Benton County simply produced the registration forms and the list of names, as Franklin County did, I would have posted them on my (Facebook) page,” Zink said in a Tri-City Herald story. “All 72 of my (Facebook) friends would see I had posted something and moved on.”

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