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The New England First Amendment Coalition called on Connecticut lawmakers today to oppose a bill that would keep secret evidence seized during criminal investigations.
The legislation could, the coalition warned, “give unilateral authority to law enforcement to keep secret all records gathered in nearly every criminal case.”
Bill No. 970 covers “[p]roperty seized in connection with a criminal arrest or seized pursuant to a search warrant without an arrest” and exempts this “property” from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
It’s not clear, however, whether the term “property” refers to just those physical items seized or whether it also includes any record describing that property, such as an inventory, NEFAC explained in comments submitted to the Connecticut Joint Committee on Judiciary.
If interpreted broadly, the coalition added, the breadth of this legislation could also conceivably prevent the disclosure of all records gathered by law enforcement from suspects and witnesses in nearly every criminal case.
“Bill No. 970 would give police unreasonably broad discretion to shield from the public records it now has the right to view,” wrote Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, on behalf of the coalition. “This could make it near impossible for Connecticut residents to monitor the activity of police and hold its law enforcement accountable.”
The Connecticut FOIA already allows police to keep secret any documents that could jeopardize an investigation, identify a witness or reveal investigatory techniques, Silverman wrote.
“Even when interpreted narrowly, this legislation is unnecessary given the state’s existing police records exemption to the Freedom of Information Act,” he explained. “There is simply no reason for this bill other than a strong preference by law enforcement and prosecutors not to be supervised by the public.”
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.