By James H. Smith
Some key Connecticut legislators are telling us to compromise on how much the people can know about crime and punishment, how much we can know about how the police are protecting the public from alleged criminals.
I’m not sure how to compromise on the right of the people to know what its government is doing in their name.
Our state Supreme Court ruled last summer that all anyone needs to know is the name of someone arrested, the date, and where the arrest took place. That’s it. 911 tapes? No way. Crime scene photos? Absolutely not. Race of the person arrested? Nope. Criminal record of the person arrested? No way. Nada. Nothing.
A committee of the legislature passed a measure, put forth by freedom of information advocates, which would allow the public to know more about how our criminal justice system works. But the bill now goes to another committee, the Judiciary Committee, which could water it down. Then it goes to the floor of the legislature, which could kill it entirely.
After the state Supreme Court’s ruling, which shut down two decades of adjudication on what is public about criminal investigations, state Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven) reacted with: “The time has come to provide for some additional disclosure . . . I think that wherever there is the greatest disclosure in current practice should probably become the standard statewide.”
Now president of the Senate, Looney noted that the state high court asked the legislature to revisit the issue. He should be able to come through with a law that better informs the people what its police and prosecutors are doing.
What the Supreme Court did was eschew § 1-210(b)(3) of the state’s FOI statute in favor of the much more restrictive § 1-215. For two decades, 210 had trumped 215. The bill now before the Judiciary Committee goes back to § 1-210(b)(3), which lists specific exemptions from disclosure. They are:
- The identity of informants not otherwise known or the identity of witnesses not otherwise known whose safety would be endangered or who would be subject to threat or intimidation if their identity was made known.
- The identity of minor witnesses.
- Signed statements of witnesses.
- Information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action if prejudicial to such action.
- Investigatory techniques not otherwise known to the general public.
- Arrest records of a juvenile, which shall also include any investigatory files, concerning the arrest of such juvenile, compiled for law enforcement purposes.
- The name and address of the victim of a sexual assault or injury or risk of injury, or impairing of morals.
- Uncorroborated allegations subject to destruction.
That is a whole lot of protection for our law enforcers to get their job done, but Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane will “compromise” only if the much more restrictive 215 is the base. He suggests we can add to 215 what the people should know.
I am suggesting we take the eight above exemptions from disclosure and if police and prosecutors want to add more exemptions, let’s look at their ideas and start to compromise then.
When as a society, we move into things like body cameras on police and on the hoods of police cars — tell me, will that all be secret? Or will the public be able to see?
James is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and is president the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.