Bill would allow too much police secrecy

Imagine that the son of a local politician is arrested on charges that the business he operates is a front for illegal drugs sales. In ferreting out the alleged illegal operation, police execute search warrants and seize records and property.

The politician raises suspicions that police targeted her son for political motivations. Defense attorneys raise questions about the legitimacy of the search. A plea deal gets the defendant off easy. There is no trial. The family asks for privacy.

The public, meanwhile, is left wondering whether something might be amiss.

And news reporters do their jobs, asking what evidence police had to obtain a search warrant and what information was seized.

Under a proposed law now before the state legislature, police and prosecutors could, without explanation, keep that information secret.

Senate Bill 970 would allow law enforcement officials to retain information on items seized in criminal investigations. This information would only become available to the public if it is entered as evidence in a criminal, civil or administrative proceeding.

Only a small percentage of criminal cases go to trial.

This proposed law would give too much power to police and prosecutors to control information. It could very well undermine public faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system. It certainly would greatly inhibit the job of a free press to get at the facts.

The bill comes in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that apparently irked Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and his fellow prosecutors with the Division of Criminal Justice. The Hartford Courant last year won a five-year legal battle to obtain documents seized from the home of Adam Lanza, the gunman who fatally shot 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 before killing himself.

The documents, including the writings from Lanza’s journals, were published by the newspaper and have provided insights into the workings of his troubled mind, adding to information that could help mental health experts assess warning signs in future cases.

But unhappy with the court’s ruling that the information should be opened and made available under the state Freedom of Information law, Kane and the criminal justice division seek to weaken the law.

By any measure, this is a needless overreach. It should die in committee.

The FOI law already has reasonable exemptions. Police can refuse to provide documents that would reveal investigatory techniques, identify a witness or jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Information that would violate personal privacy also can be withheld from the public.

The presumption, however, is for openness unless one of these exemptions applies. The proposed law would turn that on its head, presuming documents to be secret unless they are presented as evidence at trial.

At the hearing held before the Judiciary Committee, the Division of Criminal Justice issued unsigned written testimony that was supposed to be reassuring: “Nothing in the proposal prevents law enforcement from making information public, or from disclosing it to the public upon request if that is advisable.”

In other words, law enforcement authorities could release information when that serves their purposes and withhold information if it does not or might prove embarrassing.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, put it so well in his testimony that we will let his words sum up our editorial:

“There is simply no reason for this bill, other than a strong preference by law enforcement and prosecutors not to be supervised by the public.”

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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