Subpoena for Library Records

There has been a lot of controversy in the past about whether the government should be free to subpoena library records or bookstore records, or execute search warrants for such records. (See, for instance, this post of Orin’s, this Congressional testimony by Orin, and pp. 30-37 of this article of mine.) I just ran across a case that dealt with this question in an unusual context — where the defendant’s alibi involved his supposedly returning a certain book to the library, State v. Hilton (Wash. Ct. App. Sept. 27, 2011):

Mr. Hilton’s remaining arguments are that the records were private under both Const. art. I, § 7 and the Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW, and protected by the First Amendment and Const. art. I, § 5. In particular, he cites to RCW 42.56.310, which provides that a library record that “discloses or could be used to disclose the identity of a library user is exempt from disclosure under this chapter.” The emphasized language makes short work of Mr. Hilton’s PRA argument. The PRA provides an exemption from disclosure pursuant to a public records request. It does not create a privilege, let alone a privilege exempt from judicial process. See RCW 42.56.050; Brown v. Johnston, 328 N.W.2d 510 (Iowa), cert. denied, 463 U.S. 1208 (1983). Similarly, Const. art. I, § 7 prohibits intrusion into “private affairs” absent “authority of law.” A subpoena is “authority of law.” Gunwall, 106 Wn.2d at 69. Mr. Hilton’s argument is without merit.

The free speech argument fares no better. Mr. Hilton appears to predicate his claim at least in part on the theory that the SIJ [Special Inqury Judge] proceedings were invalid, an argument we have already rejected. His sole authority is a Colorado case, Tattered Cover, Inc. v. City of Thornton, 44 P.3d 1044 (Colo.2002). That authority is not apropos. That case involved an injunction against a search warrant, not a valid subpoena. The court ultimately concluded that the government had not established a compelling interest justifying the search for records that were recognized as private in Colorado. Id. at 1061. There, also, the bookstore resisted efforts to provide information about its customer. Here, the library provided the records within hours of the subpoena. Mr. Hilton has presented no relevant authority suggesting that this subpoena was invalid for failing to address the particular concerns associated with free speech rights.

Even if Washington followed the same compelling interest test, it would be met in this case. A double murder was being investigated. Mr. Hilton had voluntarily told police that he had been at the library that evening and indicated which book he had returned. He had waived any claim of privacy related to Hard Time or his checkout and return records. The compelling State interest in confirming or dispelling his alibi outweighed the privacy interest he had already waived. [Footnote: Moreover, the librarian’s testimony concerning when Hard Time was returned to the library was the result of an independent source–the defendant’s own admissions to the police–not the subpoena process. Thus, even if the subpoena had been invalid, it would not affect the testimony against the defendant.]

The SIJ subpoena was properly issued. It did not infringe upon any rights belonging to Mr. Hilton. Accordingly, the trial court correctly denied the motion to suppress the evidence.

As I mentioned, this is an unusual situation, and one could argue that the rule should be different if the government were seeking library records in other contexts. But I thought it was still worth noting, just as an example of how the issue might sometimes come up.