Less than a year after the state Supreme Court ruled that police could withhold arrest information while criminal prosecutions are ongoing, lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would essentially undo that decision.
The bill before the legislature, H.B. 6750, would require police to disclose the “record of arrest of any person” as well as “any other public record that pertains to the arrest,” regardless of whether a prosecution is pending.
The court had maintained that police are required to release only basic information about arrests during pending investigations. At the same time, the ruling effectively eliminated the appeals process to the Freedom of Information Commission for anything other than that basic information.
The written opinion, issued by Justice Richard Robinson, ended with a caveat that the state legislature is the appropriate forum for “balancing the various interests and articulating a coherent policy” by revising the relevant statute “as it sees fit.”
Roughly six months later, lawmakers are considering legislation to re-declare those records as public.
A public hearing before the Government Administration and Elections Committee in February pitted Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane against Freedom of Information Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy.
Murphy argued that the bill is necessary to ensure government transparency, while Kane argued that the bill would not protect the rights of witnesses and victims.
Now, committee co-Chairmen Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, and Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, say the bill will be a source of debate over the coming weeks.
It could come before the committee for a vote as early as this Wednesday, Jutila said, or as late as the committee’s April 1 deadline.
In the interim, a caucus is usually held to answer members’ questions and listen to their ideas, according to Jutila.
“Sometimes on that basis we decide we’re going to bring an amendment to the bill or take it off the agenda if it doesn’t have support,” he said.
Cassano said he understands the arguments from both sides of the issue. “I believe there’s room for some compromise,” he said. “There’s got to be at least some minimum standards. And that’s what we’re trying to do, which is more than you’ve got now.”
He cited existing statute, which defines arrest records as police blotter details and either an arrest report, incident report, news release or other similar document. The current proposal would not change that definition, though Cassano said it should be more specific.
“If there’s going to be a press release, identify the criteria for the press release,” Cassano said. “(Police) could put out one line saying, ‘Charlie Brown was arrested.’ That’s not enough.”
Jutila went further in his criticism of the current statute. “It’s an embarrassment. It needs to be changed,” he said. “I mean, that gives them latitude to give virtually no information.”
What form could this compromise take?
Jutila said one option would be for Kane and Murphy to sit down and come up with a proposal they both think would serve everyone well.
“If not, then it will be up to the committee to decide what to do with it,” he said. “From my point of view, this is not going to be one of those cases where (we say), ‘OK, you two guys get together and work something out or we’re not going to have a bill.’ I want to have a bill.”
Former Freedom of Information Commissioner Mitchell Pearlman said in a letter to Cassano that passing the bill is critical to maintaining a semblance of transparency in government within the state.
“Because government gives its law enforcement agencies monopoly power over the use of force and incarceration, they pose one of the greatest threats to a democratic form of government, if and when that power is misused or abused,” Pearlman wrote.
It’s a scenario that Murphy brought up in her testimony before the committee a month ago. She described the hypothetical arrest and beating of “John Q. Public” by police officers who were then able to withhold video footage and mug shots for the duration of prosecution.
Cassano later cited Murphy’s example as one of the reasons why discussion on the issue must take place — especially “something of that magnitude,” and particularly “in this charged atmosphere we live in today.”
He said he’d be more worried about the impact of the case on the police department than on the officer.
“There’s always a bad apple,” he said. “The bad apples have to be sought out, and that’s one way they’re going to be sought out.”