Sheriff suspends pet licensing program citing privacy concerns

Although a public records request for information on more than 2,000 pet owners and their animals has been rescinded, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict has indefinitely suspended the county’s mandatory pet licensing program while privacy issues are addressed.

Benedict said July 28 that Adam Chamberlin of Port Angeles dropped the June 30 request for “a CD containing all of the licensed pets in Clallam County, including license numbers, owner information and all other pertinent information,” according to the request.

Chamberlin, who administered the now-defunct “Clallam County Criminal Watch 2” Facebook page, rescinded it after Benedict announced the suspension of the licensing program on July 20 in press release that also was posted on the Sheriff’s Department Facebook page.

The post generated 188 comments as of noon Friday, July 21, many of which were both critical of Chamberlin for seeking the information and of the Sheriff’s Office for making Chamberlin’s request public.

Chamberlin cancelled the request within an hour after the Sheriff’s Office release was posted.

“I was wanting to start a new part-time pet retrieval service. A free one,” he said in one of the comments. “I rescinded this request.”

Chamberlin declined to comment further Friday when contacted at his home.

Benedict said the information Chamberlin was seeking included personal information such as the addresses and phone numbers of all 2,222 dog and cat owners and the breeds of their pets that he is forced, under state law, to release.

“Why should you need to know that?” Benedict said. “What is the public interest?”

Benedict said Friday he had planned to spend about $1,500 to notify the pet owners by mail that the records will be released unless they successfully petitioned county Superior Court to prevent disclosure.

He said in the release that all pet owners would receive the letters by this coming Friday, Aug. 4.

“We recommend seeking legal assistance/counsel to file a petition with the court,” the release said.

Benedict said Friday he suspended the licensing program in consultation with county Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brian Wendt.

“I can suspend the program because it’s my program,” Benedict said.

In his press release, Benedict prefaced his announcement by stating his belief that the records should not be released.

“Washington citizens are learning that most personal information they provide to state and local governments to enhance public safety, or to comply with regulations, can be released to anyone and for any purpose thereby invading their right to privacy as well as potentially compromising their own safety,” he said.

“Until this matter is fully settled, I have suspended our pet licensing program and will consult both the county commissioners and legal representatives to chart a way forward.”

Benedict said that what needs to be settled is whether or not pet owners who register their animals for licenses have an expectation of privacy that the information they submit for licenses will not be released.

“What is next to determine is if there is a way forward to protect that data,” he said.

Benedict said he has discussed the issue with 24th District state Rep. Mike Chapman as part of a possible fix to state public records laws.

Benedict also will discuss the disclosure requirements with county commissioners “probably in another week or two,” he said.

The licensing program helps match lost pets with the animals’ owners.

Licensing is $10 a year for neutered-spayed dogs and cats and $55 a year for non-neutered-spayed pets.

Failing to license a pet is civil infraction with a $250 fine.

Benedict said license proceeds generate about $5,000-$10,000 a year and go to the Olympic Peninsula Humane Society.

“It has a very, very low participation rate,” he said.

“Why is that? It’s because people don’t trust government anymore.”

Paul Gottlieb is a senior staff writer with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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