The Connecticut Supreme Court fumbled in ruling this week that police can tell the public only the barest of information about a crime while a case is pending. Often, that can be years.
The unanimous (7-0) decision released Monday gives the police bald power to withhold information about a crime while leaving no recourse for the public to appeal.
In agreeing with an appellate court in the Commissioner of Public Safety vs the Freedom of Information Commission argument, the state Supreme Court sets back public access to details about crime 20 years.
Nearly every news agency in Connecticut had joined the suit as amici curiae in support of the FOI Commission and to underscore the importance of this case.
Police can release the basic “blotter” information — the name and address of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the criminal charges — and a “news release” that can contain as much or as little detail as police wish to disclose. Anything more, as a result of the court ruling, is up to them while a case is pending.
Experience shows time and time and time again that police are reluctant to tell the public details about a crime. Their preference is to withhold, not disclose. And it’s simply less work to say no. But their motive to avoid tainting a criminal proceeding can so easily turn to secrecy.
Now, as a result of the ruling, police can withhold mug shots, race, immigration status or whether the person arrested was exercising the First Amendment right of free speech or free assembly.
Police don’t have to tell the public whether the arrestee has an extensive criminal history or whether that person is in a position of public trust.
Police don’t have to tell whether the arrestee had previously been reported to, and ignored by, the police.
Police don’t have to tell the public how a killer got the weapon.
Isn’t this important information most law-abiding citizens should have the right to know about alleged criminals in their town and state?
We agree with Colleen Murphy, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, in this assessment: “Law enforcement, of course, is one of the most powerful governmental entities with the most power over its citizens.”
“That’s always a concern: Who’s watching over that?”
Right now, no thanks to the state Supreme Court, the answer is: no one.
But in its 27-page decision, the court acknowledges the “controvery that continues to this day about the relationship between criminal investigations and the public’s right to know” and it points the way for change.
Leave it up to the General Assembly to change the law, the justices said. We urge legislators to do so, with courage and commitment to public disclosure.