State high court denies access

Police officers, firefighters, judges and employees of the state Department of Children and Families are among those exempt from having their home addresses on motor vehicle grand lists released, the state Supreme Court decided Friday.

The exemption is under Connecticut General Statute 1-217, the interpretation of which has been questioned since 2008. In June of that year, a man requested a copy of the North Stonington motor vehicle grand list but was refused the addresses of the exempted public employees.

"The addresses of those protected people are not to be readily given out because they all have sensitive jobs and they're people that in their work can come in contact with pretty emotional situations," North Stonington town attorney Frank Eppinger said Tuesday. "It's meant for health and safety reasons."

The decision released Friday will be printed in the June 28 edition of the Connecticut Law Journal. The court argued the case in December.

Two opinions with a total of six concurring justices found in favor of North Stonington and its co-plaintiffs that included the Commissioner of Public Safety, the judicial branch and union representatives for some employees whose addresses would be released.

"It's an idiotic decision by a court that has no grasp on the issue," said Peter Sachs, who filed the original request under the state Freedom of Information Commission. "It's dealt a horrible blow to the state of Connecticut as far as freedom of information is concerned."

The case began when Sachs, a Branford-based private investigator, asked every municipality in the state for copies of the file from the Department of Motor Vehicles used to prepare motor vehicle grand lists. North Stonington Tax Assessor Daryl DelGrosso declined to provide the list without redacting the home addresses of about 40 residents protected by the statute, and Sachs filed an FOI complaint.

Sachs' complaint argued that it is the responsibility of the protected individuals to redact their addresses with the DMV, so the lists given to towns already comply with the statute.

The defendant in the Supreme Court case was the FOI Commission, which sided with Sachs after his original complaint.

The commission went on to win a Superior Court decision.

The Superior Court decision was appealed, but before the Appellate Court could hear the case, the state Supreme Court took it on.

In one opinion, Justice Peter Zarella wrote of a state statute, 1-210, that deals with access to public records and exempted records.

"We conclude that there is no ambiguity regarding a town assessor's obligation not to disclose the home addresses of the designated public officials and employees when making a grand list," the opinion reads.

Colleen Murphy, the FOIC's executive director and general counsel, said the decision could have far-reaching consequences.

How does the assessor know who is on the exempted list? she asked.

What if someone on the exempted list moves to a nonexempted profession? And, most importantly, Murphy said Tuesday, what does this mean for other public lists?

"Take a town clerk with dog license records that may have an address of someone in those (exempted) classes," Murphy said. "How will they deal with that going forward?"

Sachs said judges in Connecticut should not have heard the case because the statute exempts them.

"They are not even qualified to decide this case because there's an inherent bias there," Sachs said. "Every judge in the state should have recused themselves."

Sachs said he asked towns statewide for the files as an academic experiment but "never imagined it would get to the point of showing a total lack of understanding by the Supreme Court."

"I knew it was going to piss people and agencies off, but I didn't care," Sachs said. "My goal was to see if freedom of information has in fact done what it's supposed to do: allow information to be free."

Sachs said on Tuesday that he would not file an appeal.

North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane said, "it was a principle thing as to how the assessor and myself interpreted the law.

"It clearly states that these names are exempt from release," Mullane said Tuesday of the statute.

"We told them they could have whatever else they want, we don't care, but not what was exempt."

s.goldstein@theday.com

UBOX:

Connecticut General Statute 1-217:

Nondisclosure of residential addresses of certain individuals. (a) No public agency may disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act, the residential address of any of the following persons:

(1) A federal court judge, federal court magistrate, judge of the Superior Court, Appellate Court or Supreme Court of the state, or family support magistrate;

(2) A sworn member of a municipal police department, a sworn member of the Division of State Police within the Department of Public Safety or a sworn law enforcement officer within the Department of Environmental Protection;

(3) An employee of the Department of Correction;

(4) An attorney-at-law who represents or has represented the state in a criminal prosecution;

(5) An attorney-at-law who is or has been employed by the Public Defender Services Division or a social worker who is employed by the Public Defender Services Division;

(6) An inspector employed by the Division of Criminal Justice;

(7) A firefighter;

(8) An employee of the Department of Children and Families;

(9) A member or employee of the Board of Pardons and Paroles;

(10) An employee of the judicial branch;

(11) An employee of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services who provides direct care to patients; or

(12) A member or employee of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

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