Pierce County Judge Imposes Record Public Records Act Penalty in MHB Case

Posted by MHB Admin

On April 12, 2024, Pierce County Judge Bryan Chushcoff entered an Order imposing over $750,000 in penalties on the Washington State Patrol for violations of the state Public Records Act (PRA) for the improper handling of records requests from Bart and Penny Adler of Olympia.  Unless reversed on appeal, the award is believed to be the largest PRA penalty ever imposed.   

The Adlers sought records about the investigation of a four-vehicle collision that killed their 23-year-old son, Isaac. Isaac was in his car, in stopped traffic on State Route 512 near the I-5 junction just after noon on September 2, 2020, when he was hit from behind by a car that slammed into the stopped cars at high speed, crushing Isaac’s car, killing him, and then totaled a third vehicle which it pushed into a fourth.  The driver of the car, Patrick Nicholas III, was uninjured but was not arrested or charged with anything.  Nicholas had an extensive criminal record, a suspended license, was subject to a law-abiding order for previous convictions and was driving without insurance.  

When the Adlers learned that citations issued to Nicholas from the fatal collision had been voided they hired a lawyer to investigate.  In February 2021, they submitted Public Records requests to the WSP for records regarding the collision and the causing driver.  WSP’s responses provided few answers and appeared to be incomplete so they submitted additional requests.  Between February and October of 2021, the Adlers submitted a total of 40 requests, several of which reiterated earlier unsuccessful attempts to unearth information.  With no satisfactory explanations or answers provided, they filed a PRA lawsuit in April 2022. They learned that the WSP had failed to complete even the basic non-criminal investigation required in all fatality cases until months after the Adlers started making their PRA requests.  They also learned that WSP had destroyed video of the crash scene and destroyed several emails, both in violation of retention requirements, and that the citations initially written for Nicholas had been voided without following WSP’s internal procedures.   

Judge Chushcoff’s Order found that the WSP failed to properly produce 647 records in response to the Adlers’ requests.  These included investigative reports and internal WSP emails admitting failure to properly conduct the investigation, improper destruction of video recordings and failure to follow procedure in voiding Nicholas’ citations.  In an email in which Gina Miller, a WSP’s records coordinator first informed her supervisor that WSP procedure had not been followed in violating Nicholas’ citations, she also warned that the Adlers might file a lawsuit, complained about their many requests, and made false and derogatory remarks about their deceased son.  For this and other reasons, Judge Chushcoff found that WSP had acted in bad faith in concealing nearly 1700 potentially relevant records it had found in response to a request for email exchanges between courts and WSP relating to voiding citations.  Those emails were not revealed until nearly a year-and-a-half after WSP had located them—and WSP’s Public Records Manager Rhonda Tucker had filed two sworn declarations with providing false and misleading statements about whether, and later when, those records had been found.  

A few months before the Adlers’ PRA lawsuit went to trial, an internal disciplinary complaint was served on Ms. Miller for her handling the Adlers’ record requests, but she was allowed to resign from the WSP before any action was taken against her.  Nothing was done about the mishandled investigation, retention policy violations, and the improper voiding of Nicholas’ citations.  Nicholas still has not been cited or charged with anything related to the collision or the death of the Adlers’ son. 

In the three-and-a-half years since their son’s death, the Adlers have incurred significant financial debt and spent countless hours of their own time seeking the truth and a proper resolution.  They felt compelled to do so because, as Bart Adler put it, the WSP treated their son’s death as “a matter of no consequence.”  “They treated our son like roadkill,” Mr. Adler said.  Under the PRA, the Adlers can apply for reimbursement of reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses.  The WSP has not said whether it will appeal. 

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