The House of Representatives unanimously voted Friday for legislation that would declare arrest reports to be public documents under the Freedom of Information Act, reversing a major element of a Connecticut Supreme Court decision.
The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, is a compromise asserting a right of the press and public to see police reports in most circumstances, while allowing authorities to withhold other police documents that are now presumed to be public.
“This amendment 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,” said Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
The Supreme Court stunned the Freedom of Information Commission and media lawyers last year by ruling that police reports were not subject to FOI. In a unanimous decision, the court said department only need release brief summary information of arrests.
The ruling reversed what had been standard practice in Connecticut for decades. The first response of media groups was to seek legislation essentially erasing the decision.
But law enforcement, led by Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, opposed a full restoration, beginning a long series of negotiations.
“What this does, it strikes a good balance,” said Rep. David K. Labriola, R-Oxford, a former police commissioner in Naugatuck. “You don’t have too much disclosure. That’s part of the balance. If you have too much disclosure, it could be inflammatory.”
The bill allows the redaction of witness names and specific information about a crime that a law enforcement agency “reasonably believes may prejudice a pending prosecution or a prospective law enforcement action.”
The purpose of the provision is to allow police to withhold specific information as a means to assess the credibility of witnesses.
“Now, is it possible for that exemption to be abused? Yes,” said Daniel J. Klau, a lawyer who represented an advocacy group, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. “This was a good compromise, not a perfect one by any means.”
“We don’t think it s a huge loophole,” said Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel of the Freedom of Information Commission, the state agency that adjudicates FOI complaints. “Of course, we’ll have to see over time how it’s interpreted.”
Klau said the legislation fails to restore a previous standard saying that all police files were public unless they fell within certain exemptions.
“This bill does not get us back to that,” he said.
The legislation does anticipate a broader use of police body cameras, an issue now before the General Assembly. It specifies that video pertaining to an arrest is public.
The legislation says that police must release arrest affidavits, unless they are sealed by a court order.