The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the process by which some sex offenders’ names can remain off the public registry is not subject to disclosure under the state freedom of information records act.
The court ruled unanimously in a dispute between the Department of Public Safety and the Freedom of Information Commission, agreeing with the department’s decision to keep all information regarding the placement of certain sex offenders on a secret registry only available to law enforcement.
“This ruling rightly upholds state law providing judge’s discretion to conceal a sex offender’s information in certain very narrow circumstances, usually to shield the identity of victims. It protects the anonymity of incest victims and others especially vulnerable to identification,” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a release Thursday.
Reporters with the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Conn., filed a freedom of information request in 2007 for information on a sex offender registry compiled by the department while it was investigating which courts, if any, were prone to issuing orders that restricted access to that registry, said Colleen Murphy, general counsel for the commission. They were looking into whether there was a pattern involving particular courts, judges or prosecutors that made a habit of using a statute that allows judges to keep sex offenders off the public registry in instances where disclosure might cause the victim’s identity to be revealed.
The request originally sought more information that could have identified the 39 offenders placed on the non-public registry, but the reporters chose to limit it to information they believed would not be blocked by the statute, said Alexander Wood, a staff reporter with the Journal Inquirer.
“Our case wasn’t really about the offenders, whose information had been restricted, or the victims in any way, it was about what judges are issuing these orders and how often are they happening and just how restrictive the registry is,” Murphy said.
The newspaper filed a complaint when the department failed to answer its request. When the department responded with heavily redacted information, the commission ordered it to more fully comply with the request and include the names of courts, judges, clerks and attorneys involved in the cases of the 39 offenders.
The statute at issue in the case allows for information surrounding a sex offender to be kept off the public registry, but doesn’t specifically define which information.
“We tried to put some common sense into it to say that the information that would be restricted is any information that would reveal the identity, in any way, of the registrant or the victim,” Murphy said about the commission’s attempt to comply with the statute while fulfilling the paper’s request. Releasing names of judges and courts would not conflict with the statute’s purpose, the commission argued.
A trial court agreed with the commission’s interpretation, but the state Supreme Court reversed that ruling Thursday in determining that restricted offender registration information includes all data involving the case, Murphy said.
She said that the information is still public and can be found by digging through records at each of the state's courthouses, but the law enforcement-only registry, where it is all compiled, is not available through a FOI request.
“As far as I know, the sex offender registry is the only central source of information on these orders. To go out and find them in the court records would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Wood said.