Published January 10. 2014 4:00AM
Hartford - The state Supreme Court is poised to weigh in on the daily tug of war between police departments and members of the media who seek more than just the basic details about arrests.
Justices in the state's highest court heard arguments Thursday in Commissioner of Public Safety vs. Freedom of Information Commission, a case concerning New Haven Register reporter Michelle Tuccito Sullo's efforts to obtain information from state police about a mentally ill man who attempted to kill his father in Derby in 2008.
Sullo asked for a police report of the incident, but received only a press release containing the arrestee's name, address and birthdate, the date, time and location of the incident and a two-paragraph description of the incident. The press release omitted key details of the case, including the victim's name, his relationship to his attacker and where he was hospitalized.
Sullo appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), which upheld her complaint. The state appealed to Superior Court, where a judge ruled that the state had fulfilled its legal obligation. The FOIC took the case to the Appelate Court, which affirmed the lower court's decision. The case was then taken up by the Supreme Court, which will decide whether the state Freedom of Information Act requires disclosure only of police blotter information and, upon request, a press release or other brief description.
Generally, the court rules on cases within a few months of hearing oral arguments.
Assistant State's Attorney Terrence M. O'Neill argued on behalf of the public safety commissioner that Connecticut statutes give law enforcement agencies the discretion to decide, beyond the police blotter details, how much information to release about pending cases.
"You see a legislative instruction to law enforcement that says, 'Hey, we're going to trust you with this,' '' O'Neill said. At the same time, the laws "recognize that there is a public interest in not having a secret arrest," he said.
Attorney Victor R. Perpetua, arguing on behalf of the Freedom of Information Commission, said it is "never a good choice to give agencies a lot of power of unfettered discretion." He told the justices the FOIC is just seeking to maintain the status quo in which it decides appeals in cases in which members of the media or public feel they have been wrongfully denied information under the state's open records law.
"No one is saying the FOIC is the boss," Perpetua said, noting the commission's rulings can be appealed to state courts. He said he is unaware of any case in which a police department, ordered by the commission to disclose information, has ever come back and said that the disclosure was harmful to the prosecution or resulted in a witness being intimidated.
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and other groups representing news organizations, including The Day, had filed briefs in support of the Freedom of Information Commission.
State law holds that all arrest reports, except those involving juveniles, are public records from the time of arrest but provides exceptions, including instances where witnesses may be endangered, the information may be harmful to a prospective law information action or contain investigatory techniques not known to the general public. The law also allows the police to withhold the identify of sexual assault victims.
In the New Haven Register case, Sullo received the information she had sought only after the case was resolved in court. Perpetua argued that open records issues should be decided at the time of the request. He referenced the lengthy delays in the release of the 911 tapes and a state police report on the Sandy Hook school shooting, a case in which there was no arrest.
"Why should the entire world have to wait before the prosecution is completed if the question is the adequacy of the police reponse?" Perpetua argued.