Seized evidence should not be kept secret
Limiting seized evidence disclosure would stifle public understanding of crimes
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information advocates, on behalf of the news media and other open government advocates, to preserve the public’s right to know through Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. Our organization has been leading the way in the fight for transparency since 1955.
We oppose Senate Bill 970, “An Act Concerning the Confidentiality of Evidence Seized in a Criminal Investigation” because it would deny access to records that are crucial for public discourse and transparency. The public has a variety of interests in the property seized in connection with a criminal arrest or pursuant to a search warrant — oversight of police, reviewing how and why certain conduct happened, and even education for public policy discussions.
This legislation is offered in response to the state Supreme Court’s decision in Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection, et al. v. F.O.I. Commission, a decision that granted the Hartford Courant access to more than 1,000 documents seized in connection with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. SB 970 would essentially make into law the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s argument that property seized under such circumstances is not public, but is instead private.
This runs counter to the intent of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants the accused the right to a public trial and ensures transparency in our court system. This is not a right that the state should be entitled to take away.
Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be a justification for this bill beyond a desire to withhold this information from the public. If there is no harm in releasing this information once it is filed in connection with, or introduced as evidence at a criminal, civil or administrative proceeding in the Superior Court, then there would be no harm in disclosing property that falls short of this threshold. Exemptions already exist to protect certain kinds of information, like financial documents or those that make uncorroborated allegations.
If there are concerns about specific information, then we can talk about specific exemptions, but SB 970 is an overreach addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. At the same time, the vast majority of civil and criminal cases end short of trial, meaning the public’s right to know would be greatly limited because of the interests of the parties involved to avoid certain outcomes.
The records obtained by the Courant as a result of Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection, et al. v. F.O.I. Commission provided the public with important insight into what led up to the tragic events of Dec. 14, 2012.
We understand that any conversations about this tragedy are difficult for the survivors, relatives of victims, and first responders, but they are still important. The Sandy Hook shooting has shaped public policy decisions in a number of areas over the last six-plus years, and it’s important that the public has the fullest possible understanding of the incident.
It should be noted that even the Sandy Hook Commission, the entity created by the legislature for the very purpose of making public policy recommendations, was denied access to these records prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling. How can they make recommendations, particularly improvements for mental health treatment or to identify possible warning signs, without access to vital records? Instead, public access to these records allows experts to review documents and provide insight.
Of course, this bill would also apply to cases beyond Adam Lanza, and this would greatly limit oversight of police. Police have the power to detain people, arrest them and put them on a path toward losing rights, or even to use lethal force. Public oversight is a vital check against this authority, and access to records seized by police — including documents, images and video or audio recordings — is crucial in achieving this balance.
This also applies to cases where no arrest occurred — if police are obtaining warrants to seize property but aren’t making arrests, the public has a right to understand why. The case of Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University trainer who sexual assaulted hundreds of young girls, was investigated twice by police prior to his 2016 arrest. Why did police let him go twice? As part of his defense, Nassar turned over presentations, videos and other records he said proved his methods were medically sound. Reporters found other medical professionals who questioned the police’s handling of these records. Under SB 970, the public would not have the same opportunity.
We also have concerns about the limitations SB 970 would create whenever police actions result in an investigation. State law requires an investigation whenever a police officer uses deadly force to determine if charges are warranted. Presumably, this investigation would include seizing any and all available video and audio recordings, documents and other records. This bill makes no distinction between property of private citizens and public agencies.
If SB 970 is adopted, the public would only have the opportunity to review such records when an officer is charged and goes to trial, and prosecutors enter the property as evidence. Short of that, the public wouldn’t be able to view video from dashboard or body-worn cameras whenever an officer uses deadly force or is accused of criminal conduct.
For these reasons, I urge that you oppose SB 970 and preserve freedom of information for all Connecticut residents.
Michael Savino is President of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
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