Bills to limit public access to 911 calls, murder photos face opposition

Hartford - Two bills that would amend the state's Freedom of Information Act by limiting the public's access to homicide 911 calls and homicide victims' photographs were strongly opposed by public officials, defense attorneys and media groups and also opposed by the 26 Sandy Hook school shooting families in two General Assembly committees on Monday.

Several state legislators and officials supported the bills, which they considered compromises between victim advocates and public information advocates.

"We appreciate the hard work of the Task Force on Victim Privacy on a wide range of issues," said the 26 families of the Sandy Hook school shooting in written testimony. "However, for us, the most important issue has always been ensuring that no one be able to look through the photographs of our murdered children, mothers, brothers and sisters, let alone publish them."

Monday's public hearings come after the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know held months of meetings in response to Sandy Hook massacre victims who did not want their family members' photographs or 911 tapes released. Last year, without a single public hearing, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed into law legislation that restricted the public's access to any homicide photograph or visual image if it "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion" of the personal privacy of the victim or the victims' family members.

Monday's bills, Senate Bill 388 and Senate Bill 381, would allow the public to view a homicide image but not make a copy of it. After people view the image they could argue for its release.

"There have been many occasions in history where controversial images and recordings have had a dramatic impact on public policy, reform and an understanding of the value and importance of the First Amendment to our democracy," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, who opposes the bills.

The state passed its Freedom of Information Act in 1975, and Mary Schwind, managing director for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said she didn't understand why after 38 years of having access to homicide photographs and 911 calls the state is trying to restrict this public information.

Schwind said she opposes last year's homicide-image legislation and this year's proposed legislation.

But she said the new legislation is an improvement compared to last year's because the public can view the homicide photographs. She said if there must be changes made to the state's Freedom of Information Act, the standard for not releasing a homicide image should be changed to Connecticut's Perkins standard instead of the federal standard, which is more stringent and included in last year's bill and Monday's bills.

The Perkins standard was determined by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1993 and requires the government agency to prove that the information should be kept from the public. The government must prove that the image is not of legitimate public concern and is considered highly offensive to a reasonable person.

The federal standard, which was determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 and is called the Favish decision, places the responsibility of proving that the images should be made public on the individual making the Freedom of Information request.

"It can be assumed that the requests for information will automatically be denied," Williams said.

The bill would also not permit the release of homicide 911 calls and homicide-related calls between law enforcement agencies and state or municipal government agencies.

"A democratic society needs to be able to reflect upon and understand these incidents and question those involved in the response to them," Jodie Mozdzer Gil, president of the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, said in written testimony.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, who was a member of the task force, said he supported the legislation.

"Just like the government requires law enforcement to investigate crimes, the government has the responsibility to treat this information sensitively and to not impair the privacy or dignity of the victims," Kane said.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said that the state had to balance the public's right to know with new media.

The new media, Internet sites and entertainment sites rely on these photographs for profits at the expense of families, he said.

The bill also would make the identity of witnesses to nearly every criminal drug offense and all crimes of violence exempt from the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act. Currently, only minor witnesses are exempt.

"If enacted this would result in an unprecedented denial of previously available information with no necessary relation to witnesses being threatened or endangered and with no relation to the security of the investigation," Williams said.

At the national level there have been numerous cases of individuals who have been wrongly accused and convicted and later released because of the work of students, journalists and law students who discovered discrepancies after interviewing witnesses.

"Access to basic information including the names of witnesses is essential to reversing wrongful conviction," Williams said. "This would make those efforts impossible in the state of Connecticut."

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