HARTFORD — In a ruling that could sharply limit public details on criminal arrests, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may release only basic information about suspects before their cases reach Superior Court.
The decision was a defeat for the state Freedom of Information Commission and, according to a Quinnipiac University professor, could result in a loss of public faith in local police, who may limit disclosure to the names of suspects and the charges against them.
The ruling, written by Associate Justice John A. Robinson, affirms an Appellate Court decision and leaves the door open for the General Assembly to renew an argument it had in 1994 over the extent of details that should be available on criminal arrests.
The case dates to March 2008, following the arrest of Toai T. Nguyen, of Shelton, who was arrested after an early afternoon attack of an elderly person on exit 17 off Route 8. He ended up pleading guilty, but the Freedom of Information Commission ordered Shelton Police to release more details on the incident.
In a 27-page decision with 35 footnotes and a recounting of House and Senate debates over a 1994 bill on public information, Robinson said that full reports on cases are not required.
“Insofar as there is no claim that the news release provided by the department did not contain a narrative sufficiently meaningful to satisfy its obligation,” Robinson wrote, “we conclude that the Appellate Court properly determined that the commission incorrectly found that the department violated the act in this case.”
One of the lawmakers quoted from the 1994 debate was then-Sen. George Jepsen, of Stamford, who is now the state attorney general.
“Given the continuing vigorous legislative debate on open government matters, both in 1994 and today, we deem balancing the various interests in articulating a coherent policy on this matter to be a uniquely legislative function,” Robinson wrote.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the FOIC, said Monday night that she will confer with the commission and possibly develop legislative recommendations for the next General Assembly, which convenes in January.
“I think it will shut down access because of the discretion given to law enforcement,” she said of the decision. “They’re given discretion beyond some basics.”
Previously, to withhold information police had to show that it met disclosure exemptions.
“Now they can provide a name, date of offense, location and whatever narrative they want to tell,” Murphy said. “The police are allowed to create a story at their own discretion.”
Rich Hanley, associate professor at Quinnipiac University and director of its graduate journalism program, warned Monday that it will chill the media’s access to police actions — and result in public suspicion of local law enforcement.
“It’s going to backfire on the police,” he said in a phone interview. “Once this information becomes so restrictive, people won’t have the confidence that police can do their jobs. It’s going to be hard for the media or anyone else. Police can control content and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The press release is going to say only what the police want you to read.”
Jepsen, whose office successfully argued the case for the Department of Public Safety against the FOIC, said the high court’s decision “provides needed clarity” about the extent of arrest information that can be released before trial.
“As the Supreme Court’s opinion notes, the legislative debate 20 years ago, in which I took part as a state senator, sought to strike an appropriate balance among competing interests, resulting in a compromise bill,” Jepsen said. “If policy priorities have changed, the Legislature is always free to strike a different balance.”
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