Against the backdrop of civil unrest in hotspots like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, the Connecticut legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that would allow the public to look more closely at what happens when a person is arrested.
H.B. 6750 would make more arrest information available while a prosecution is pending. It provides public access to official documents like arrest warrants as well as 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 the information is subject to existing law enforcement exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
While the bill allows police to deny requests for any information reasonably believed to be prejudicial to prosecution, that may not be the end of the road for information-seekers who choose to look beyond statute.
Jim Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said there’s legal precedent for a more thorough evaluation of what constitutes “prejudicial.”
“[The police] can withhold, for example, whether a victim was choked or raped, which is legitimate. But the public can also challenge the withholding,” Smith said. “There’s a 1998 Appellate Court ruling that stipulates police cannot just declare something is prejudicial. There must be an evidentiary hearing to prove it is prejudicial.”
Smith said the first evidentiary hearing would be held by the Freedom of Information Commission.
The compromise between the Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, which was months in the making and seemed at times impossible, was ultimately endorsed unanimously by both the House and Senate.
The bill strengthens Freedom of Information provisions that had been eroded by a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that allows police to withhold arrest information while criminal prosecutions are ongoing.
The Supreme Court interpreted existing statute to require law enforcement agencies to disclose to the public little more than basic police blotter information.
The legislation first adds the arrested person’s race to the list of basic, disclosable information. Then it goes on to require more specific details.
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.
If an arrest affidavit or report is sealed by the court, police must provide a report summarizing the circumstances leading to the arrest that doesn’t violate the court’s order.
The state’s Freedom of Information Act already prohibits police from giving out records with information that could harm witnesses, informants, or prospective law enforcement action. It also allows police to keep their investigation techniques under wraps. Juvenile arrest records as well as images depicting homicide victims may not be released.
David McGuire, legislative and policy director of the ACLU of Connecticut, welcomed the measure’s passage through both houses.
“This bill ensures that our criminal justice system remains open to public view,” he said. “Everyone benefits from the legislature’s decision to restore government transparency.”
If the governor signs the bill into law, it will take effect Oct. 1.