Connecticut Lawmakers Scale Back Right-to-Know Curbs

26 March 2014

By Ed Jacovino

Jacovino is a reporter with the Journal Inquirer, of Connecticut, where this article first appeared on March 25, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

HARTFORD — A legislative committee on Monday balked at a measure that would have kept from the public certain crime scene photos and 911 calls, stripping several right-to-know restrictions from the bill before approving it in an 8-6 vote.

The original bill before the Democrat-controlled Government Administration and Elections Committee would have made sweeping changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act as it relates to homicide photos and audio recordings.

The revised bill keeps public all 911 calls and allows the public to view crime-scene photos at a police station. To get a copy of a photo, members of the public would have to argue before a state panel that the photo should be released. But the revised bill shifts the burden of proof from the public to police, who would have to demonstrate why the release of a photo would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Sen. Anthony J. Musto, D-Trumbull and a committee co-chairman, said the changes were the result of negotiations between lawmakers.

“It’s a compromise,” he said after the vote. “What we are trying to do is come up with a reasoned compromise that will address most people’s concerns.”

But Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, said lawmakers created a task force to work out the language of the measure and the bill shouldn’t have been changed.

“The bill that came before us sought to further negotiate a compromise,” he said.

He and Musto are members of the Judiciary Committee, which not only is expected to consider the bill but also has its own bill that’s identical to the one the Government Administration and Elections Committee scrapped.

“Let’s see what Judiciary comes up with,” McLachlan said. “There’ll be more discussion down the road.”

Open-government advocates support the changes made Monday, saying the revisions mark a step toward transparency.

“It narrows what the task force voted in favor of,” Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said. “It brings it back down to just the images.”

Murphy was on the task force but voted against the group’s recommendations. She had asked lawmakers not to put the burden of proof on reporters or other members of the public to prove a document should be released — saying that would mark a major change in the freedom-of-information law.

State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose also was on the task force and supported the original bill. “Just scrap it altogether,” Ambrose said of the revised measure.

He and others on the task force who wanted more privacy for victims’ families wouldn’t have agreed to the process for people to view photos and hear recordings in a private session if the 911 recordings would be public, he said.

“This flies in the face of all the negotiations that we did,” Ambrose said after the vote.

The revised bill would make public all 911 calls but maintain rules that allow police not to release crime scene photos showing the body of a homicide victim, if they think the photos constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

It also would create a system for reporters or members of the public to view the photos at a police station or other location. Anyone who wanted a copy of a photo would have to file a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission. Police would have to show it wasn’t in the public’s interest to release the photo. They’d also have to try to notify the victim’s family, which could argue against the photo’s release.

The FOI Commission then would determine whether the release of the photo would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The result is a measure that provides more openness than existing law, which blocks access to all homicide photos. Legislators voted to seal such photos last year after families of Newtown school shooting victims said they feared the images of their loved ones would be spread over the Internet. At the same time, lawmakers created the task force to come up with recommendations.

An earlier version of the bill based on the task force’s suggestions would have applied the privacy to photos of homicide victims and to recordings of 911 calls reporting a homicide and other recordings if they indicated the “impaired physical condition” of the caller or a victim.

If a person wanted a copy of a photo or a recording, that bill would have required notice to the surviving family members and asked them to indicate whether they want the photo or recording released.

And if the case went before the Freedom of Information Commission, the burden of proof would have been on the public to argue the release of the information wouldn’t be an unwarranted invasion of privacy — not on the surviving family or police department to prove otherwise.

It also would have created privacy around the identities of children who witness crimes.

The revised bill passed the committee in a vote that closely followed party lines, with Democrats in support. Democrats joining Musto in voting for the bill were Reps. Ed Jutila of East Lyme, Matthew Lesser of Middletown, Teresa W. Conroy of Seymour, Michael D’Agostino of Hamden, Roland Lemar of New Haven, Patricia B. Miller of Stamford, and Brian Sear of Canterbury.

Joining McLachlan against its passage were Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, and Republican Reps. Tony Hwang of Fairfield, David K. Labriola of Naugatuck, Michael Molgano of Stamford, and Rosa C. Rebimbas of Naugatuck.

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