By Dave Collins, The Associated Press
HARTFORD >> The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Monday that police statewide only have to release basic information about arrests to the public while prosecutions are pending, striking a blow to the media and open government advocates.
The high court said in a 7-0 decision that current state law limits disclosure of arrest information to “police blotter” material including the name and address of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the criminal charges. Justices said police also are required to release one of the following: the arrest report, incident report, news release or other similar document.
The court, however, said in the decision written by Justice Richard Robinson that it’s up to the legislature to decide whether the law needs to be changed and to debate how to balance the public’s right to know against the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of prosecutions and criminal investigations.
Media advocates worry that police will now refuse to release mug shots, details of allegations and other information that are now often disclosed before trials.
The Associated Press and other media organizations filed a legal document in the case saying that a ruling in favor of the police would give law enforcement authorities a green light to selectively withhold information, and that restricting access to police reports would thwart the public’s ability to examine how police are doing their jobs.
“It is a significant restriction on the public’s right to access,” said attorney Daniel Klau, who oversaw the filing of the media organizations’ brief by the Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. “It continues to vest in the police far too much discretion to decide for themselves what information the public has access to.”
The case that went before the Supreme Court began in 2008 when the New Haven Register requested a state police report on the arrest of a man in a Derby assault case. Police said the report was exempt from disclosure and gave the newspaper a press release instead.
The state Freedom of Information Commission ruled against state police, but a state judge and the state Appellate Court found in state police’s favor.
The state attorney general’s office argued that state police correctly followed state law and that the Freedom of Information Commission’s interpretation of the law was flawed.
Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the Freedom of Information Commission, said officials at her agency were surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling. She said the decision was one of several by the state’s appellate courts in recent years that have gone against the commission — and against disclosure of public documents.
Murphy and Klau said they were not seeking to force police to release every arrest document while prosecutions are pending, rather that police prove that requested documents are exempt from disclosure.
“Law enforcement, of course, is one of the most powerful governmental entities with the most power over its citizens,” Murphy said. “That’s always a concern: Who’s watching over that?”