By James H. Smith
The sun isn’t shining brightly on law enforcement action in Connecticut.
The sun did shine one day last month on the State Legislature with testimony on a bill that would open up criminal investigations more to the public. But now the legislation is stalled in committee. It may or may not see the light of day.
As of this moment, the public can be denied 911 tapes, mug shots of those arrested for crimes, the race of anyone arrested — just about anything but who was arrested, where and for what.
For two decades much of the information gathered by police in criminal investigations and arrests has been available to the public. But last summer the state Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that police can keep secret almost everything they obtain in crime investigations. Technically, it ruled that one part of the FOI statutes, Section 1-215, which limits what must be released, trumps another, Section 1-210, which provided for more transparency into police activity.
The Court suggested that the Legislature revisit the issue and rectify the seeming contradiction in the sate’s laws.
After FOI advocates met with the leaders of the Legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which has cognizance on FOI matters, it offered H.B. 6750, An Act Expanding the Requirement for Disclosure of Arrest Records During a Pending Prosecution Under the Freedom of Information Act.
The bill drafted by the committee would reverse the Supreme Court decision. There was a full day of hearings where police and prosecutors opposed the legislation and FOI advocates supported it.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane testified that “the Supreme Court went through the legislative history of the statute . . . when this Legislature very wisely enacted that section (1-215),” thus narrowing the scope of what must be disclosed.
The bill before the committee shifts authority back to Section 1-210, which was the basis of 20 years of Freedom of Information Commission decisions on what police must release.
FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy testified how she looked back at the legislative history and found then-Sen. George Jepsen, now the state attorney general, saying that, “By closing off arrest records, we open up arrest itself as an avenue of abuse of civil rights because it will no longer be necessary for the police to defend an arrest on the basis of information that would be immediately available to public scrutiny.”
Murphy told the GAE Committee that Kane’s position “permits the police at their discretion to avoid public scrutiny of many aspects of an arrest, such as mug shots showing an arrestee’s appearance at the time of arrest or videotapes or other recordings made at the scene or in the police station . . . The law enforcement agency could withhold whether the person sits in a position of public trust, immigration status, minority status and the like . . . The (court) decision raises the question should the police have this absolute discretion to decide whether the public can learn this very important information.”
The committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Edward Jutila (D- East Lyme), told the CTNewsjunkie.com last week that the statute “is an embarrassment. It needs to be changed.” Section 215 gives the police “latitude to give virtually no information.” Still, Jutila could not guarantee the GAE Committee would move the proposed legislation to the floor.
Let’s hope it does. This bill must not die in committee. A full debate in the House and the Senate is needed.
James is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.