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News / Northwest

WA State Patrol fined $750,000 for failing to disclose public records after crash

Case involved Pierce County crash that killed a 23-year-old in 2020

By Mike Carter, The Seattle Times
Published: May 6, 2024, 7:56am

The Washington State Patrol has been fined $750,000 for public-disclosure failures surrounding a couple’s efforts to find out why troopers dismissed a citation given to a driver believed responsible for a crash that killed their son.

If upheld, the fine imposed by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff would be among the largest public-records penalties levied against a public agency, according to the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Chushcoff, in an order issued April 12, found the State Patrol “failed to conduct reasonable searches for records responsive” to more than 40 public disclosure requests filed by Bart and Penny Adler of Olympia and their attorneys for information into the investigation of a Sept. 2, 2020, collision on Highway 512 that killed their 23-year-old son, Isaac.

In all, the court found the State Patrol failed to “properly produce” more than 647 records — and concealed another 1,700 emails and other documents the judge found were responsive to the Adlers’ repeated requests.

The Adlers’ public records lawsuit turned up evidence that investigating troopers failed to prepare a “Fatality Packet” — including all reports, diagrams and photographs detailing the crash — for nearly nine months after it occurred, and that during that time, dash-camera video and other records were destroyed, according to court documents.

Issac Adler was stopped at a red light on Highway 512 near Interstate 5 when his Subaru was struck from behind by a speeding vehicle driven by a man identified in court documents as Patrick Nicholas III. Adler’s car was spun around and crushed, and he suffered fatal injuries. Nicholas was not hurt, according to the lawsuit.

The Adlers learned Nicholas had a long history of criminal convictions and traffic violations. At the time of the crash, he was driving on a suspended license and was not insured, according to court records. He was cited for negligent driving and lack of insurance and allowed to leave the scene, according to court documents.

Court records show that citation was “voided” at the request of the trooper without explanation about two weeks later, prompting the Adlers to file the first of more than three dozen public disclosure requests to try to find out why. When they didn’t get the documents they asked for, they hired an attorney and sued.

The lawsuit stated that since then, Nicholas “has never been cited, prosecuted, fined or penalized in any way for his actions” that day. While troopers at the scene had asked for criminal investigators to respond, they were unable to come to the scene. The Adlers’ Seattle attorney, Tim Ford, believes says this poisoned any future plans to investigate or prosecute a crime because Nicholas was not arrested, his car wasn’t impounded and he was not tested for impairment.

Ford said it appears the State Patrol “dropped the ball” and the troopers didn’t file additional reports or start building a required noncriminal “Fatality Packet” until the Adlers began filing public records requests six months later.

Bart Adler said the State Patrol treated his son’s death “as a matter of no consequence.

“They treated our son like roadkill,” he said.

Chris Loftis, a spokesman for the State Patrol, said in a statement that the dash-camera video was likely erased due to “miscoding” combined with a “cascading procedural mishandling of the same case in the public disclosure office.”

“Neither situation meets our standards of service as the penalty would suggest,” he said.

“We accept the court’s criticisms and recognize that the performance of some of our personnel was not in keeping” with WSP standards, Loftis said. “Our hearts go out to the Adler family. … If those performance deficits added even a moment to the Adler family’s grief, again they have our deep and sincerest apology.

Loftis said an investigation was conducted and that troopers were unable to establish probable cause to file criminal charges.

Ford said the Adlers filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Nicholas, and won a default judgment when Nicholas failed to reply to the lawsuit. “That had some symbolic value for them but will gain them nothing” since he has no assets, he said.

The decision to void the citation against Nicholas prompted the Adlers to file a public disclosure request to try to find out what happened, starting a yearslong effort to obtain public records — efforts that were hindered by mistakes and failures of a recalcitrant public-disclosure tracking coordinator who had warned her supervisor she thought the Adlers were going to sue, according to the court pleadings.

In a 17-page order, Judge Chushcoff said the employee “demonstrated obstinacy in her search” that led the State Patrol to move to discipline her, however Loftis said “subsequently left our employ.”

At one point, another State Patrol employee stated in a sworn declaration that specific records did not exist. The lawsuit noted she located the documents within hours of signing the declaration, “but did not alert plaintiff’s counsel to the error for several months, misleading the parties and the court all the while.”

The judge concluded the patrol failed to properly supervise the records coordinator assigned to the case.

The court ruled the Adlers succeeded in showing evidence of “bad faith, deception, or false assurances” by the WSP in connection with their public-records requests, adding that the “failure to properly respond to plaintiff’s inquiry naturally leads one to suspicious explanations, a goal the [Public Records Act] seeks to avoid.”

The judge penalized the State Patrol $750,189.

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