The House unanimously approved a bill Friday that restores public access to certain arrest record information.
The bill was a response to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that allows police to withhold arrest information while criminal prosecutions are ongoing. The version of the bill that the House passed Friday was a compromise between the Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said recent news stories from across the country about police abuse caught on camera have helped drive home the importance of the legislation.
“Those are the images that are so powerful and those are the images that we want to make sure come out and not be cast aside because there’s a pending matter going on,” Murphy said.
The bill, H.B. 6750, would allow the public to view depictions of an arrest that may come from body cameras or dashboard cameras. Such footage of an arrest or time spent in custody must be disclosed unless subject to existing law enforcement exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The Supreme Court interpreted existing statute to require law enforcement agencies to disclose to the public little more than basic police blotter information.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said Friday that he still feels the Supreme Court got it right. “I think they interpreted it as the legislature intended it,” he said. “I think the Supreme Court recognized (the statute) had been very much unreasonably broadened.”
While acknowledging the importance of government transparency, Kane said it’s equally important to protect the public interest through fair and accurate criminal investigations and trials that are not prejudiced by the premature release of arrest details.
Murphy contends that her commission has been working effectively for 20 years prior to the Supreme Court decision under the belief that the Freedom of Information Act — once a model of transparency at the state level — means all arrest records are public unless any of eight law enforcement exemptions apply.
The bill evolved from a measure put forth in the Government Administration and Elections Committee at the behest of transparency advocates, including Murphy, to reverse the court decision by requiring the disclosure of all non-exempt arrest records regardless of pending prosecution. Late last month, the Judiciary Committee approved an amendment submitted by Kane’s office that would allow the public access to only arrest warrants or a summary of probable cause.
The latest iteration of the bill is the result of a compromise between Kane and Murphy. For arrests made by warrant, the measure requires the disclosure of an arrest warrant application and affidavit. Warrantless arrests would require the disclosure of the “official arrest, incident or similar report.” In the event that a court seals an affidavit or arrest report, a summary of the events leading up to the arrest must be provided.
Murphy has said it was one of her priorities to make sure the public’s right to know about an arrest — even if a court seals the specific information — is upheld.
Kane said the compromise was a recognition that “there should be ways to provide information to the public that’s not directly or indirectly in violation of a court order.”
The bill precludes law enforcement agencies from redacting arrest records except to conceal the identity of witnesses, any information reasonably believed to be prejudicial to prosecution, or any details that have been sealed by a judge. It also requires police to notify the regional state’s attorney’s office of any request for arrest records so that the state can get involved if it chooses.
Government Administration and Elections Committee Co-Chairman and state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, said the bill has been a priority of his from the beginning. “I guess I remained cautiously optimistic that we could get to an agreement if we just kept the two primary stakeholders talking to each other,” he said. “Sure, we had impasses along the way. We always managed to get them back together and talking. When you get reasonable people communicating, usually good things will come of that.”
State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, also urged Kane and Murphy to come back to the table. He described the bill as a “landmark” compromise between the two sides.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.