Washington Supreme Court Finds Competency Evaluation Open to Public When It Becomes Court Record

State v. Chen, 309 P.3d 410 (Wash. 2013)

Under Washington law, competency evaluations are confidential and available only to certain specified individuals with a need to access the information. The Washington Supreme Court held on September 5, 2013 that the State constitutional requirement that all cases be administered openly supersedes that law. A court may seal a competency evaluation only when it makes an individualized finding that factors enumerated in a Washington Supreme Court case, Seattle Times Co. v. Ishikawa, 97 Wn.2d 30, 640 P.2d 716 (1982) weigh in favor of sealing.

Defendant Louis Chen was charged with two counts of aggravated murder that occurred in August 2011. Chen’s attorney presented mitigation information to discourage the State from seeking the death penalty. Part of this information was an opinion from a psychiatrist that Chen was not competent to stand trial. As a result, the trial court ordered that Chen be evaluated by doctors at Washington’s Western State Hospital. After receipt of the evaluation, the court found Chen competent to stand trial. Chen moved to seal the competency evaluation, or in the alternative, to redact certain information. Under Washington law,

…all records and reports made pursuant to this chapter, shall be made available only upon request, to the committed person, to his or her attorney, to his or her personal physician, to the supervising community corrections officer, to the prosecuting attorney, to the court, to the protection and advocacy agency, or other expert or professional person who, upon proper showing demonstrates a need for access to such records.

RCW 10.77.210(1).

The trial court denied Chen’s motion to seal the evaluation, applying the Ishikawa factors, but did redact certain information contained in the report. Under Ishikawa, anyone seeking closure of court proceedings must make some showing of a compelling interest, and where the interest is based on a right other than the accused’s right to a fair trial, that showing must demonstrate a “serious and imminent threat” to that right. Anyone present must be given an opportunity to object to the closure. The method of closure must be the least restrictive means available for protecting the threatened interest. A television station was in the courtroom and objected to the motion to seal. Direct discretionary review of this decision was granted and during the pendency of the appeal, the trial court stayed its order and sealed the entire evaluation pending review.

On appeal, Chen first argued that if competency evaluations are subject to openness, the statute would be rendered meaningless. The Court held, however, that the statute applies until the competency evaluation becomes a court record, at which point it becomes open to the public. Chen also argued that important privacy issues are at stake and that public access could taint the jury pool. The Court found that these are important considerations, but they can be adequately addressed as part of a motion to seal. The Court found that competency determinations are an important turning point in the criminal process and the idea of a public check on the judicial process is especially important when competency is at issue. Having found that the statute conflicted with the State constitutional requirement of openness, and that Chen was seeking a blanket exclusion for all competency evaluations, the Court held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in refusing to seal the evaluation and to redact only certain portions of the report.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 4