The Government Administration and Elections Committee voted 9-6 Monday in favor of a bill written to nullify a Connecticut Supreme Court decision allowing police to withhold arrest information until criminal prosecutions are completed. The vote sends the bill to the floor of the House for consideration.
The bill, H.B. 6750, supersedes a ruling by the state Supreme Court that allowing police to withhold arrest information while criminal prosecutions are ongoing.
The court predicted the reversal of its own decision in a written opinion, issued by Justice Richard Robinson, that ended by saying the issue should ultimately be settled by the legislature.
The bill is the committee’s effort to change the state’s Freedom of Information Act to better balance the public’s right to know against prosecutorial and privacy concerns. It represents a shift from requiring no more than basic police blotter information and one other piece of information about an arrest to requiring at least that much information. All other records must be disclosed unless they fall within the Freedom of Information Act’s law enforcement exemption.
Exemptions range from records that reveal the names of witnesses or informants to crime scene photos.
Committee Chairman Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, said after the meeting that he has been facilitating conversation between representatives of the chief state’s attorney’s office and the FOI Commission on the issue. The bill was originally on the committee’s agenda last week but was tabled to allow more time for compromise.
But Jutila said suggestions from chief prosecutor Kevin Kane’s staff to alter the language did not make it into the bill.
The suggested change would have allowed law enforcement personnel to furnish the public with a summary of the same information they use in their probable cause arrest affidavits, according to Jutila. Currently, statute requires one of the following: an arrest report, incident report, news release, or other similar report of the arrest of a person.
But a probable cause summary would just be another document created for the purpose of public disclosure, Jutila said: “While that may have been better than a press release, it’s still not the real public documents that should be available to people unless there’s a legitimate exception.”
James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said the bill’s language remains true to its original intent of putting the onus back on law enforcement organizations to prove a requested document falls into the exempted category.
“The law enforcement community and prosecution have those eight exemptions and can protect what they want to protect,” he said.
State Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said relying upon the exemptions makes extra work for police officers who must go through the FOI process “every time they wish to hold on to some police photos or crime scene photos that maybe should not be released right away.”
Richard Smith said the bill also doesn’t do enough to protect individuals who are arrested and found not guilty.
According to James Smith, that argument does not justify keeping arrest records secret. “You can’t erase history. If someone’s arrested and it’s reported in the press, that happened. He was arrested. If a prosecutor can’t convince a jury that he’s guilty, then that happened too. You report what happened then. But you don’t not report people being arrested because you don’t know if they’re going to be found guilty or not,” he said.
Richard Smith said he couldn’t support the bill as drafted but would like to be involved in coming up with language that realizes the fine balance between the public’s right to know and law enforcement’s ability to do its job. “I know the police would like to keep things in their hands until the case is done. I know the press would like to get a hold of everything and disclose it to the public from the get go. Hopefully there’s some compromise on that. If an arrest warrant probable cause affidavit does that, I’d be happy to support it,” he said.
James Smith and other transparency advocates will continue to engage in discussions with those favoring more restrictive language. But he said the true compromise has already been made — and it rests in those eight exemptions outlined in the law.
Jutila echoed a belief in the overarching effectiveness of the exemptions already on the books. “I haven’t heard a compelling case that there’s not enough protection in that series of exemptions,” he said.
“I’m a reasonable person. I’ll keep listening to them if they have other ideas and they really can be convincing that there’s going to be some kind of public safety issue, or danger to witnesses, or witnesses that will be reluctant to be witnesses,” Jutila said. “All those things are legitimate concerns.”
Jutila said he has a strong public safety background, growing up as a fireman and building a rapport with those in law enforcement — some of whom he considers his best friends. Trying to balance the concerns of the police with the public interest weighs heavily on him.
“This is not an easy thing for me, but I believe in transparency,” he said.