by Hugh McQuaid
Lawmakers appear unlikely to act in the remaining two weeks of the session on two pieces of legislation aimed at balancing crime victim privacy with Connecticut’s public disclosure law.
The legislature put the issue on its agenda last year when it created a task force as part of bill restricting access to some law enforcement records. The bill was a last-minute action passed without a public hearing to prevent the disclosure of pictures related to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
After months of contentious meetings, the task force made recommendations to lawmakers, which two legislative panels used as the basis for separate proposals. One bill called for greater protections for crime victims, the other more access to public documents. But neither seems destined for the governor’s desk this year.
“It’s the kind of thing we just might not have time for this session. With so many different varied opinions, it may be that we can’t get everyone on the same page or even a similar page to get something through,” Sen. Anthony Musto, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said Monday.
Early on this session, Senate President Donald Williams signaled he opposed the recommendations of the task force, based in part on a provision to place the burden of justifying the release of emergency 911 recordings on the person requesting them.
When two committees drafted the recommendations into identical bills and held hearings on them, Williams opposed them both.
“This legislation is unnecessary. It is not only counterproductive, it’s destructive,” he said. “. . . It will result in less transparency in our criminal justice system, less attention paid to the needs of families in poor, high crime neighborhoods, and will make it harder to discover flaws in our criminal justice system and bring about effective reform.”
Both panels redrafted their proposals before moving them along.
The Government Administration and Elections Committee removed the language regarding 911 recordings from the bill, meaning the public would retain access to them. It also preserved an idea from the task force to allow the public to inspect—but not copy—pictures depicting homicide victims. Under last year’s law, access to these photos is blocked completely.
The Judiciary Committee followed up with its own proposal. Despite Williams’ opposition, the panel maintained the new restrictions on 911 recordings and its bill included an absolute ban on the inspection or copying of photos depicting the bodies of children who have been murdered.
Judiciary’s bill now sits on the Senate calendar where Williams has broad control over which proposals are raised for a floor vote. Asked last week whether he still had concerns about the proposal, he said simply “Yes.”
The GAE proposal has recently been referred for review to the Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers have already opted to write their own alternative.
Musto said he has reached out to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee, but said the two panels have a “difference of opinion” on how the issue should be handled. Musto was one of two senators to vote against last year’s bill and on Monday he expressed disappointment it looked unlikely the law would be altered this year to grant more public access.
He said his colleagues were “all over the map” when it comes to the issue this year with some wanting to see stronger protection for crime victims and others wanting to see last year’s restrictions abolished. Some legislators want the law passed last year left alone.
“There is a huge disparity on what people think should happen,” he said. “Getting enough votes in the middle is going to be a difficult thing to do especially in two weeks, especially in both chambers.”
Advocates on both sides of the issue who served on the task force were not upset at the idea that lawmakers may take no action on the group’s recommendations.
State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose said he prefers the legislation drafted by the Judiciary Committee of the two proposals, but is comfortable with the idea of neither passing.
“From my office’s standpoint doing nothing is also good because it means we still have the protections included in” last year’s law, he said.
James Smith, a former newspaper editor and current president of the Council for Freedom of Information, said he prefers no action on the issue over the group’s recommendations.
“Would I like to see [last year’s law] repealed? You bet. There shouldn’t be any obstacles that hides from view law enforcement action, whether last year’s bill or the task force recommendations, there’s all kinds of new obstacles to trying to understand the huge problem of crime in this country,” he said.