Coming out of the dark?
Back in September, I complained in this space about a rule that prohibits the public from accessing police reports in certain court cases. I’m happy to report the topic was added to the agenda of the Connecticut Judicial Media Committee. The committee discussed the issue at its December meeting and Judge David P. Gold, committee co-chair, created a working group to discuss the topic with key stakeholders.
The working group, of which I'm a member, met for the first time in February. We didn’t resolve the issue after nearly two hours of rigorous discussion, but agreed to do some research and meet again in April.
Attending the meeting were judge Robert Devlin, chief administrative judge for criminal matters; Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, state Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose, and veteran Public Defender James McKay.
Judicial Media members included Devlin; Claude Albert, retired editor of the Hartford Courant and legislative chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information; Rhonda-Stearley-Hebert, communications manager for the Judicial Branch; Melissa Farley, executive director of external affairs for the Judicial Branch; New Haven Independent Reporter Melissa Bailey and myself.
The problem involves access to police reports in cases where there is no arrest warrant and the defendant makes bond before his first court appearance. Because a judge does not have to read the report to determine if there is enough evidence to hold the person in custody, the report does not become part of the clerk’s file that is available for public inspection.
The situation applies to the vast majority of court cases, but journalists encounter it only when we seek access to cases of public interest. Recently, The Day was unable to obtain an arrest report when a local firefighter was arrested after a bar fight. Nor did we have access to the case of a Navy sailor charged with attempting to sexually assault a neighbor.
At the meeting, the journalists argued that arrest documents should be available for public inspection, perhaps with redaction of sensitive information like witness names or information that could jeopardize an ongoing investigation. The police, Albert said, should be required to say why they are depriving a person of his liberty.
Kane said prosecutors’ offices could barely keep up with redacting probable cause reports in cases where the defendants are held in lieu of bond. He asked us to take another look at the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Gifford vs. Freedom of Information, from 1993, that requires police to provide basic information on arrests and a narrative.
Also, the group noted that the state Supreme Court could shed more light on the access issue when it rules on Commissioner of Public Safety vs. Freedom of Information Commission. The case was argued before the court in January.
Judges take the position that arrest reports belong to the prosecutors’ office until a court is asked to rule on some kind of dispute. And when a ruling is made, Devlin said, the information is included in the clerk’s file not so much for the public, but to preserve the record for appellate purposes.
I suggested judges could change the rule to allow a journalist or member of the public to argue to the court that a police report should be disclosed.
But Devlin said court rules are designed to help the courts do their work.
“What would be the logic for changing a rule for something that doesn’t come before the court?” he said.
Ambrose, the victim advocate, said his office is torn when it comes to public disclosure of case information, “but if we’re weighing both, we go on the side of non-disclosure.” While most journalists use discretion when it comes to disclosure of sensitive information about victims, the possibility remains that some won’t, he said.
McKay, the public defender, appeared to lean toward non-disclosure. He said it is his office’s job to see that defendants are not unfairly deprived of their liberty. Regarding a rule change, he said he could not see “bootstrapping a public information issue into a court need.”
While it might appear there are too many conflicting interests, I’m still hopeful we can reach a compromise.
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