HARTFORD, CT — Whether the public should have access to all evidence seized in a criminal investigation was the subject of a Judiciary Committee public hearing Wednesday.
A bill that would prohibit access to property seized in connection with a criminal arrest or seized as part of a search warrant was raised following the Hartford Courant’s successful court challenge to access all evidence compiled on Adam Lanza — the gunman who shot and killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 before taking his own life.
The Courant won a five-year court battle to obtain documents seized from Lanza’s home — which included his writings, doctors’ reports, and more. The Courant then published the documents, including writings from Lanza’s journals.
State prosecutors with the Division of Criminal Justice don’t want to have to release that type of information in the future.
“The Division is certainly aware that the Supreme Court’s decision involved a request for the personal journals and other personal property of Adam Lanza, who was responsible for the unspeakable and horrific event that occured on Dec. 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School,” the department wrote in its testimony. “Of course, if you judge this bill solely based on Adam Lanza, it is easy to dismiss it as silly. After all, Lanza was a completely unsympathetic killer of children and innocent adults. Who wouldn’t want a glimpse into his deeply troubled mind?”
However, they asked lawmakers to look past the Lanza example.
“It is one thing to strive for government transparency,” the department said, “it is another to completely ignore the property and privacy rights of the individual and to endorse what is essentially an unlimited government-sanctioned invasion of privacy.”
But Connecticut Council of Freedom Information President Michael Savino said the public’s right to know and to hold police accountable doesn’t only apply in criminal cases where there has been a conviction.
He said if that was the case then information and police conduct in any case where the person responsible died or killed themselves would not be subject to Freedom of Information laws.
Savino told the committee that the bill, if adopted, “would be a major blow to the public’s right to know.”
Savino added that if the committee felt there was a need to tinker with legislation, existing laws could be “fine-tuned” instead of being superseded by an entirely new law. Savino added that even in a case where a person is eventually found innocent, evidence can be found that can be helpful in subsequent investigations.
“The public has a variety of interests in the property seized in connection with a criminal arrest or pursuant to a search warrant — oversight of police, reviewing how and why certain conduct happened, and even education for public policy discussions,” Savino said.
Savino said the only reason the legislation was submitted was because of the state Supreme Court’s decision, which gave the Courant “access to more than 1,000 documents seized in connection with 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.”
“SB 970 would essentially make into law the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s argument that property seized under such circumstances is not public, but is instead private. This runs counter to the intent of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants the accused the right to a public trial and ensures transparency in our court system,” Savino said.
Savino said the records obtained by the Courant “provided the public with important insight into what led up to the tragic events” in Newtown.
“We understand that any conversations about this tragedy are difficult for survivors, relatives of victims, and first responders, but they are still important,” Savino said in his written testimony, but he added: “The Sandy Hook shooting has shaped public policy decisions in a number of areas over the last six-plus years.”
However, State Victim Advocate Natasha Pierre worried about how access to those records might impact victims.
“Crime victims have a state constitutional right to be treated fairly with respect throughout the criminal process,” Pierre said. “Crime victims should not have to worry about the media glorification of the killing of their loved one.”
But David McGuire, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said there are already ways to protect crime victims and he doesn’t believe the bill is necessary.
“Under current police records exemptions, there are already at least five ways for police to withhold information from the public. These include allowing police to withhold evidence if it violates personal privacy or hurts a law enforcement investigation,” McGuire said.
Making that very same argument was the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC).
“The Connecticut FOIA already allows police to keep secret any documents that could jeopardize an investigation, identify a witness, or reveal investigatory techniques, NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman wrote.
“Even when interpreted narrowly, this legislation is unnecessary given the state’s existing police records exemption to the Freedom of Information Act,” Silverman said. “There is simply no reason for this bill, other than a strong preference by law enforcement and prosecutors not to be supervised by the public.”