Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County inmate sues county, gets $110K — and freedom

Jimi Hamilton sued over a records request when the county cited a Jail Records Act that doesn’t exist.

EVERETT — Snohomish County told at least 128 people seeking jail records — including inmates themselves — that they needed the prisoner in question to sign a misleading release form, citing a nonexistent Jail Records Act.

One of those inmates sued.

A King County judge awarded him over $110,000 last week, roughly half of that in penalties and half in attorney fees.

State law does require an inmate’s written permission to release many jail-related records. But the law isn’t specific about what kind of paperwork the inmate must sign, and according to a motion filed by the plaintiff Jimi Hamilton, the Snohomish County website and the authorization form “were designed to force requestors to acknowledge that they had not made a (Public Records Act) request at all.”

Siding with the plaintiff in a summary judgment, King County Judge Ken Schubert found the form not only required the inmate to sign a legal document under false pretenses, it also served to “strip away his rights” as a record requestor.

“This is so insidiously evil and deceptive that it’s almost impossible to get your brain around it,” Hamilton’s lawyer Bill Crittenden told The Daily Herald this week.

As of late last year, the county had uncovered 361 similar cases: 128 record requests relating to inmate records, and 233 more where requestors “may or may not have” been directed to the jail to obtain the records. In many of those cases, people just got the inmate to sign the release form and got their records. Hamilton refused to sign.

The judge found the practice could be traced back as far as 2003, with several revisions to the policy over the years. A website advised anyone requesting jail records that the documents were governed by the Jail Records Act, as opposed to the Public Records Act.

That’s false, the judge found.

Exactly how and when the county came to cite a fictional piece of law is unclear, but it was mentioned in PowerPoint training sessions led by a former Snohomish County deputy prosecutor who handled public records, Sara Di Vittorio. She said Friday she had not read the new judgment. She declined to comment on specifics of the case. She no longer works for the prosecutor’s office, and now serves as a public records officer at the county’s Public Utility District.

Snohomish County attorneys said employees predating Di Vittorio knew the Jail Records Act as shorthand for The City and County Jail Act — a point the judge rejected because the title was shared in public, on the county’s official website and in paperwork responding to actual requests.

“We learned our lesson,” Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said Friday, noting the county would comply with the judge’s ruling going forward.

Hamilton was serving a somewhat infamous sentence behind bars. He secretly wedded a former Pierce County jail guard, just before being sentenced to 14 years in prison for bank robberies in 2007. Over the past decade he sued the state Department of Corrections multiple times for grievances related to public records.

He’d been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole in October 2014, when a jury found him guilty of his third strike, in an attack that left a Monroe prison corrections officer with broken bones in his cheeks and jaw.

The state Court of Appeals overturned his conviction for second-degree assault in 2017, because the defense’s only expert witness was improperly questioned at trial.

Awaiting a retrial in April 2018, Hamilton asked for records relating to his transfer between the county jail and the state prison. He received a response from the county saying the documents were governed by the Jail Records Act under RCW 70.48.100, and that a signed release form needed to be sent to a different fax number and different mailing address.

The judge found it part of a misleading tactic.

“Demanding that Hamilton fill out the ‘authorization’ form would allow the County to argue that Hamilton had not made a … request at all in response to any lawsuit under the (Public Records Act),” Schubert found.

Hamilton sued, at first acting as his own attorney, then retaining Crittenden.

According to the judge’s ruling, the county never adequately refuted the assertion that references to the Jail Records Act were meant to mislead requestors.

The county scrubbed references to the Jail Records Act from its website in June, but still told requestors that for certain records, they needed an inmate to fill out the special form.

“The County acted in bad faith by seeking to convince inmates, requestors and their attorneys that the Legislature had enacted an entire ‘Jail Records Act’ that governed access to inmate records when in fact the applicable exemption was just one subsection of RCW 70.100, which contains no procedural provisions,” Schubert ruled.

By August, the county’s jail record webpage no longer mentioned a release form.

On a general note, the judge noted the county had been “consistently unhelpful” to the plaintiff.

In November, the criminal case against Hamilton was dismissed with prejudice in Snohomish County Superior Court, and Hamilton was released from prison.

The eight-page ruling by Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Eric Lucas focused on key records — prison security footage from the day of the alleged assault on a corrections officer — that had not been preserved as evidence.

Hamilton’s defense attorney had asked the prosecutor’s office to save all pertinent prison video in fall 2012.

Four days later, the system overwrote itself and destroyed many recordings. Footage of the actual attack was saved, but other videos would have documented Hamilton’s apparent mental health crisis that day, frame by frame.

The law enforcement investigation, Lucas concluded, had sought to collect evidence that supported Hamilton’s guilt, “rather than making an effort to collect all material evidence, regardless of perceived benefit.”

For Hamilton, those records became the difference between a sentence of life behind bars, or being set free.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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