In a blow to accountability and open government, the Connecticut Supreme Court Monday ruled that police statewide have to release only basic information about arrests to the public while prosecutions are pending.
The ramifications of this decision, stemming from a New Haven Register challenge of state police secrecy in 2008, could have serious implications on the public’s right to know and ability to hold law enforcement accountable.
The Associated Press and other media organizations filed a brief arguing that a ruling in favor of police would allow authorities to selectively withhold information and avoid scrutiny after arrests. Despite this, the high court unanimously sided with police.
Current state law limits disclosure of arrests to basic information like the name of a person arrested and the charges against them. Justices said in Monday’s ruling that an arrest report, news release or similar information also must be disclosed — but may not be required to do so depending on how the decision is interpreted.
Access to information could expose potential wrongdoing. It helps hold public officials accountable for their actions. This includes holding law enforcement officers — paid with taxpayer money — accountable for how they investigate major crimes.
If the media — or the public — does not gain access to detailed information until a case has been disposed of, it allows police to not only pick and choose what to release, but to have enough time to hide any potential errors or mistakes that may have been made in the course of the investigation.
These mistakes may never see the light of day.
Limiting public access makes it harder to find flaws with the entire criminal justice system.
If your relative or friend was arrested for something, wouldn’t you want to know that he or she was treated fairly and that police did everything by the book when investigating the case?
Now, we might never be able to find out if that’s true.
Criminal cases can go on for many years, like the case of Toai Nguyen, accused of killing his father and arrested in 2008. Nguyen wasn’t convicted and sentenced until 2010.
The Nguyen case was what prompted the New Haven Register to file its original complaints against the Connecticut State Police with the Freedom of Information Commission in 2008, after police refused to provide detailed information about the arrest. The case went to the FOI Commission and then to court.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision in favor of the police.
We now count on the state’s legislators to fix this. Even the high court in its ruling implies the statute dictating releasing arrest information needs to be clarified:
“Given the continuing vigorous legislative debate on open government matters both in 1994 and today, we deem balancing the various interests and articulating a coherent policy on this matter to be a uniquely legislative function. The General Assembly retains the prerogative to modify or clarify §1-215 as it sees fit.”
We urge the state’s legislators to clarify this legislation and hold police to a higher standard.