By Michelle Tuccitto Sullo
The legislature has passed a bill which requires police to release more information to the public about arrests, reversing a 2014 Connecticut Supreme Court decision which limited what police were required to give out while a prosecution is pending.
The measure was still awaiting Gov. Dannel Malloy’s signature as of June 5. If he signs the bill, it will go into effect in October.
Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of existing law, law enforcement agencies are obligated to release only the “record of arrest,” which includes the arrestee’s name and address; the date, time and place of the arrest; and the charges, and at least one additional report designated by the agency. The additional report could be the arrest report, incident report or a news release.
The ruling prompted an outcry among open-government advocates and media members, who said they need detailed arrest information to report the news.
The newly approved bill requires police to disclose the arrest warrant application and supporting affidavits, if the arrest was made by warrant, or the official arrest, incident or similar report, if the arrest was made without a warrant. It also requires that police blotter information include the arrestee’s race.
If a judicial authority orders the affidavit or report sealed, in whole or in part, then the law enforcement agency must disclose any unsealed portion, and a report summarizing the circumstances that led to the arrest, without violating the judicial authority’s order.
State Rep. Ed Jutila, co-chairman of the Government Administration Committee, helped spearhead the effort to get the legislation passed. He called the final result a compromise between the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney and the Freedom of Information Commission.
“It maintains a high degree of transparency while addressing the concerns the [chief] state’s attorney had about witnesses and the integrity of their prosecutions,” Jutila said. “This measure restores significant transparency and accountability to government during a critical time, when the liberty of our citizens can be impacted by the power of arrest and detainment.”
Jutila said he was displeased with the Supreme Court decision, which was contrary to how the Freedom of Information Commission had been interpreting the statute for years. Critics have argued that police press releases can be vague and leave out pertinent details. “A press release can contain virtually nothing, and there was no specificity about what had to be in it,” Jutila said.
The new bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from redacting from the arrest record anything except for witnesses’ identities, information which may prejudice a pending prosecution or law enforcement action, or information ordered sealed by a judge.
While a prosecution is pending, law enforcement agencies must disclose any public record that documents or depicts a person’s arrest or custody, unless there is a statutory exemption. If an agency receives a freedom of information request, it must notify the state’s attorney for the judicial district where the arrest occurred, to allow the state’s attorney to intervene in any proceeding before the Freedom of Information Commission.
Statutory exemptions include information such as the identity of informants or witnesses whose safety might be endangered; the identity of witnesses who are minors; signed witness statements; information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action if prejudicial to the action; juvenile arrest records; names and addresses of sexual assault victims; and uncorroborated allegations.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane called the final result “a fair balance between the public’s right to know and having fair trials. It provides more information to the public, because law enforcement has to provide a summary of what led to the arrest, but it allows police to protect details like the identity of witnesses.”
Kane said it also allows police to protect some information, such as facts known only to the perpetrator or witnesses. “We want to know if the person knows information because they were there [at the scene of a crime], not because they saw it on television or other media,” Kane said.
Mary Schwind, managing director and associate general counsel at the Freedom of Information Commission, called the compromise language “an improvement over where the law stood after the Supreme Court decision last year, so we are happy with it.”
James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he considers the final bill a compromise he can live with. Now, he said, “the public will get actual police documents—affidavits or arrest reports. It also requires that police body camera videos be available. It preserves enough of the people’s right to know what the police are doing and how they are performing.”
The Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from a freedom of information complaint against the State Police following the 2008 arrest of Toai Nguyen, who had been charged following a near fatal attack on his father on Route 8 in Derby. Police issued a press release on the incident, but refused to release the full arrest report. It took several months for the New Haven Register to obtain it.
According to the Register’s testimony before the legislature, once the report was finally released, the newspaper’s staff learned important information which hadn’t been in the original press release, including how the defendant was in the country illegally at the time of the attack.•
The author of this article, as a reporter for the New Haven Register, filed the original FOI complaint against the State Police that resulted in the 2014 Connecticut Supreme Court case.