Washington’s Court of Appeals on Wednesday granted a request by six Seattle police officers, agreeing to temporarily extend a restraining order blocking the release of records that would identify them as participants in the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that led to a deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol.
Appeals Court Commissioner Jennifer Koh’s ruling allows a restraining order to remain in place pending the court’s review of a King County judge’s ruling last week that would allow the City of Seattle to disclose the records.
“(A) brief additional delay is justified to allow reasonable time for this Court to fairly consider the officers’ request for discretionary review,” Koh wrote in a three-page ruling.
The appeals court will expedite the case, with a hearing set for April 2, Koh’s ruling added.
The officers — known in case documents only as Jane and John Does 1 through 6 — have sought to block disclosure of the records since Feb. 23. They sued then, after the city voluntarily notified them it planned to release personnel and investigation records to four individuals, including a KOMO News reporter, who had separately requested them under Washington’s Public Records Act.
Late last month, the officers obtained a restraining order to temporarily stop release of the records, but they lost their bid for a preliminary injunction last week. King County Superior Court Judge Sandra Widlan ruled their argument that public records law exceptions for privacy rights and materials related to open investigations of public employees didn’t apply because the officers had voluntarily attended a highly public event outside the workplace.
But Widlan agreed to extend the temporary restraining order for seven days to give the officers a chance to ask the appeals court to review her ruling.
All of the officers have acknowledged attending the so-called “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, staged in protest of the presidential-election results, while off-duty and as private citizens exercising “their constitutional rights to free speech,” according to their lawsuit.
But, they claimed, none of them participated in the riot at the Capitol or otherwise engaged in any wrongdoing while in Washington, D.C.
The siege left the Capitol ransacked, prompted lawmakers to flee for their safety and led to the deaths of five people, including a federal police officer. It also resulted in an ongoing FBI investigation, with arrests and charges against multiple defendants including scores of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and others with ties to extremist groups.
Two days after the Capitol riot, after images surfaced on social media of them at the rally, two officers were placed on leave pending an investigation. Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz later ordered any officer who had attended the event to self-report their participation. Four other officers did so, and remain working. The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is now investigating whether any of the six officers broke any laws or department rules.
Bankrolled by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the officers’ legal challenge has argued the records are barred from disclosure under exemptions to the public records law that protect information in open investigations and due to personal privacy and constitutional free speech rights.
Each officer also has claimed they fear being targeted, harassed and unfairly linked to those who committed crimes at the Capitol despite a lack of proof that they did anything wrong. Unless and until allegations of wrongdoing are proven, they argue there’s no legitimate public interest in disclosing their names for simply attending a political rally.
During her ruling last week, Widlan rejected each of the officers’ arguments as inapplicable given the circumstances. Widlan reasoned the officers’ fears of being unfairly targeted or harassed were too general and had not been supported by anyone else, including high-ranking police or city officials.
In their petition for a discretionary review, the officers argued that “prematurely releasing investigative records before the investigation is complete … will only serve to incite an unfounded witch hunt against” them.
Lawyers for one of the records requesters, Seattle University law student Sam Sueoka, countered that even First Amendment rights can be limited for police officers when their off-duty behavior undermines their professionalism and the public’s trust.
“(U)ntil the public receives information about what these six officers did at the ‘Stop the Steal’ events, there will be a cloud hanging over the SPD,” Sueoka’s lawyers, Neil Fox and Janet Thoman, wrote in pleadings this week. “This cloud adversely impacts the trust that the public has in all our police officers, particularly those who did not join in with extremists on January 6th.”
Koh ruled she was “not persuaded” by Sueoka’s arguments “that the officers will be unable to present any debatable basis for accepting review” of Widlan’s ruling.
“More importantly, there appears to be no question that once records with personally identifying information are produced, the fruits of a successful appeal of the March 12 order would be destroyed,” Koh wrote.
The city, which took no legal position on the officers’ appeals court bid, said in a court filing this week that it is poised to release the records to the four requesters and process additional requests for information about the officers. The city has received at least 25 additional requests for records related to the officers, including at least four from The Seattle Times.