Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
A Connecticut appellate court ruled this week in favor of restricting access to police records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The arrest records provision of the state’s open government law came into question four years ago when an investigative reporter for the New Haven Register used it to request access to a police report about an attempted murder. In response, the Department of Public Safety said that the entire police report was exempt under state law and instead provided a public press release containing basic information about the arrested man and his alleged crime, along with two paragraphs of additional information.
“It is a bad day for journalism in Connecticut – with reporters’ future ability to get police reports in a timely fashion in jeopardy,” wrote Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, the reporter who made the initial request, in an article posted Monday on Open Records Connecticut, the website of a group of journalists who track the accessibility of public records in the state.
After she was denied access to the police report, Sullo filed a complaint with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), arguing that the provided press release lacked key information such as the victim's name and the hospital where he was taken. She added that only through an independent investigation did the newspaper learn that the suspect, Toai T. Nguyen, was mentally unstable and that the victim, who he attacked with a metal bar, was his own father.
The public safety department appealed when the FOIC, agreeing with Sullo's complaint, ordered it to release more information related to the arrest. But the Connecticut Appellate Court in Hartford sided with the police on Monday, ruling that “the department disclosed all the information that it was obligated to disclose under the act,” according to Judge William J. Lavery’s opinion. The ruling affirmed a lower court’s finding that the provided information satisfied the state’s disclosure standards.
In reaching its decision, the court relied on the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 1993 ruling in Gifford v. FOIC, which found that state’s open records law – as it existed then – required police to disclose only limited data related to arrests: the name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest and the offense for which the person was arrested. The information provided to the Register included all of this information, although not in the form of an official police report.
This provision of the state FOIA was amended the next year to add that police must also disclose an arrest report, incident report, news release or other similar report of an individual’s arrest. But despite the change to the statute, the appellate court ruled that the Supreme Court’s initial decision “is still binding on us.”
The Supreme Court also ruled in Gifford that reports prepared by police in connection with arrests were not required to be released to the public during the course of a related criminal prosecution. After the conclusion of the Nguyen’s criminal matter about one year after his arrest, the public safety department released all relevant documents to the Register.
“What is at the crux of this is that the state police are trying to have control over how information is released,” said Sullo in an interview.
Today, more than four years after Nguyen’s alleged assault against his father, the newspaper reported that a state superior court found he was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect for a separate charge of attempted murder, in which he allegedly stabbed his sister two years ago.
Victor R. Perpetua, principal attorney for the FOIC, said the agency has not yet decided if it will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The Office of the Attorney General in Connecticut did not return a request for comment.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Connecticut - Open Government Guide: 5. Arrest records.