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Jutila's efforts assure open arrest records

With all the focus on the budget debate last week, an important piece of legislation won approval in the Connecticut General Assembly with little fanfare. It required cooperation, received bipartisan support and will assure that information surrounding arrests is subject to public disclosure.

State Rep. Jutila, D-East Lyme, played a major role in making it possible.

The government has few greater powers than that of arrest and detainment. It strips a citizen at least temporarily of his or her freedom, and sometimes for months or even years until the courts can adjudge guilt or innocence. Arrests destroy reputations and can tear apart families.

Arrests are also vital to protecting the public. The circumstances surrounding an arrest can inform citizens of threats they may face, or have faced, in their communities. People have a right to know what is going on.

Therefore, one would conclude in a free society there would be no secrecy concerning the circumstances surrounding arrests, aside from that necessary to protect the integrity of investigations and the rights of defendants. Since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in the 1970s, the presumption of openness was indeed the law in Connecticut.

Unfortunately, a state Supreme Court ruling last year undermined that standard. The case stemmed from a New Haven Register request for a state police report on the arrest of a man in an assault case. Police would only provide a brief press release.

The FOI Commission ruled against the police, ordering the report’s release, but on appeal the state Appellate Court found in the state police’s favor, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court. In its ruling, however, the high court urged the legislature to clarify the matter.

Jutila, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said he was not aware of the case when the open-government advocacy group — the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information — brought forth legislation to restore the prior presumption of openness.

“The idea that police would have the option of providing no more than a news release hit a nerve with me. Allowing police to have that much control over information was an embarrassment that I agreed needed to be fixed,” he said.

While a strong bill emerged from Jutila’s committee, it ran into trouble in the Judiciary Committee, where Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane pushed backed, concerned too much media access to arrest records could hinder criminal prosecutions.

To his credit, Jutila stuck with the legislation, persuading the Judiciary Committee to move the legislation forward and brokering discussions between Kane and Colleen M. Murphy, executive director of the FOI Commission.

The resulting compromise legislation requires police, if asked, to release arrest warrant applications, including affidavits filed in support of them. If an individual is arrested without a warrant, following an incident, police must release the official arrest or incident report. It also provides access to videos of an arrest, of growing importance given increased use of body cameras by officers.

Law enforcement authorities will be able to delete the identity of witnesses, withhold information that if released would hinder an investigation or be prejudicial to the defendant. However, the presumption of openness means the burden would be on police authorities to prove the exemptions have merit.

“Passage of the bill would not have been possible without his efforts,” wrote Daniel Klau, an attorney specializing on free speech and government access issues, in his blog Appealingly Brief.

The legislation to restore access to arrest records won unanimous approval in the House and Senate and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is expected to sign it into law.

“It’s a good law,” said Jutila, that “restores significant transparency and accountability to government (and) … addresses the legitimate concerns of the chief state’s attorney.”

And it was a good job by Jutila to help make it happen.

 

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