Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    State Supreme Court correct in opening cold case files

    Few crime stories captivate the public’s interest more than a long-unsolved murder, commonly known as a cold case. Yet for the family and friends of the victims in these cases there is nothing entertaining about them. They are gut-wrenching personal tragedies, with the lack of answers only adding to the pain.

    For the grieving, and for those who dig into these cases in hopes of finding answers, the reluctance of police departments to provide access to the records and the evidence they hold can be maddening. The vagueness of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act has given departments too much leeway in keeping information secret.

    The FOI Act allows law enforcement agencies to withhold “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action if prejudicial to such action.” The common definition of prospective is “likely to come about: expected.”

    But if a case has been dormant for several years or more, with no good leads or new suspects, is prospective action still in play and can access to information really be considered “prejudicial to such action?”

    In an important and unanimous decision released Feb. 27, the Connecticut Supreme Court answered “no” to that question. Police departments cannot permanently deny access to investigatory records using the FOI exemption.

    The court got it right.

    In its decision in the case, John Drumm, chief of police vs. the FOI Commission, the court wrote that it was placing its “thumb on the scale in favor of disclosure.” A law enforcement agency must demonstrate a “reasonable possibility” of a pending arrest that could be jeopardized if investigatory information were released.

    To keep records closed, the court found, it is not enough to simply show that “law enforcement action is only remotely or theoretically possible.”

    Allowing police departments to keep information permanently buttoned up runs counter to the “public interests underlying the FOIA, namely, fostering openness and transparency,” stated the court.

    A secretive approach that blocks access to information could prove counterproductive, the court noted.

    “With the passage of time, it becomes increasingly likely that openness, rather than secrecy, is what will unearth the elusive lead that will help the police solve the case,” states the decision written by Justice Raheem L. Mullins, a former prosecutor.

    Safeguards remain. Police would not be required to turn over an entire case file. Under the FOI Act, police can withhold “the identity of informants not otherwise known” and leave out information that protects “investigatory techniques not otherwise known to the general public.”

    The case leading to the decision is an interesting one.

    Documentary filmmaker Madison Hamburg filed the lawsuit that reached the state’s highest court. He has tried for more than a decade to obtain the police file on the death of his mother Barbara Hamburg. She was found murdered outside their home in Madison in 2010. The crime was the subject of Hamburg’s 2020 four-part HBO documentary series “Murder on Middle Beach.”

    Madison police have refused to release the file, appealing the FOI Commission decision that would have forced them to do so. Madison police have offered no public information or updates on the case since 2010.

    The Supreme Court decision upheld the ruling by Superior Court Judge Daniel Klau, who established the standard for reasonableness now adopted by the high court.

    The Supreme Court’s decision sends the case back to the FOI Commission, which is instructed to rule using the court’s new reasonability standard and other FOI Act provisions.

    There are legitimate reasons for protecting investigatory information from public disclosure. This decision protects those legitimate reasons. But with its ruling the Supreme Court has assured that exemptions to disclosure will not be used for self-serving reasons, such as covering up poor police work or disclosing that leads were missed.

    The Connecticut Supreme Court has found the right balance.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.