by Jack Mayne The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that a public official using a personal cell phone must give the agency they work for access to all of the device’s records. The unanimous opinion – released Thursday (Aug. 27)– plugged a potential loophole from a decision made five years ago. “We recognize this procedure might be criticized as too easily abused or too deferential to employees’ judgment. Certainly the same can be said of any search for public records, not just for records related to employee cell phone use . . .,” the court ruled. “Second, those criticisms spotlight why agencies should develop ways to capture public records related to employee cell phone use . . .” So what is the city or other public agency to do? “Agencies could provide employees with an agency-issued device that the agency retains a right to access, or they could prohibit the use of personal devices altogether. That these may be more effective ways to address employee cell phone use, however, does not diminish the PRA’s (Public Record Act) directive that we liberally construe it here to promote access to all public records.” The ruling applies to all public employees, not just elected members of City Councils. So if, for example a city council member or a city manager uses his or her own phone to discuss city business, that call record must made available to be captured by the city (or other public agency). If the individual believes the call not to be about public business, the individual must be able to provide significant information to prove the call was not about public business, a difficult hurdle for both the city or any other public agency and for the individual public official. “Burien recognizes the need to consider such material as public records,” Burien City Manager Kamuron Gurol told The B-Town Blog. “All public agencies are needing to update policies and procedures on this to keep up with technology and legal directives.”]]>

Senior Reporter Jack Mayne passed away in December, 2021. In his honor we have created the Jack Mayne Journalism Scholarship.

3 replies on “State Supreme Court rules cell phone records are subject to public record laws”

  1. So it would appear the city’s are now on the hook to provide cell phones to city employs so they are NOT obligated to use their own personal phones, which they privately pay for. Same issue for personal email and personal computers.
    Cities need to provide the tools for workers, and elected to do their jobs without their privacy being violated which has been the case in the past.

    1. I guess that I am a simpleton. After many years of working for the state, I still believe that my personal cell phone is for me up until the time I decide to engage in “company” business in which case my employer has a right to know if that business is information to which they need access.
      Naively, I assume that cities provide phones in the office for employees to use in the course of their business in their offices. For those cities who have staff basically on the road, yes, they may need to ensure that they have company phones if they are in regular contact with the cities involved. No need for a rocket scientist on that one.
      Would be interesting, yes, to view the records of certain Burien City Council members’ personal phones? Humm, let’s see which one we would like to see first?

      1. Elizabeth 2, If I understand this right, ‘we’ would not have the right to ‘see’ such records. Only “the agency they work for” could review it. I don’t know where the access to public records thingy, would kick in… unless of course you are the CIA or FBI, n that case we all have, a big brother.
        On a different tangent, I am wondering how this law is applied to those in education. Are we going to be asked to provide everyone in that field, with a business phone?

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