Supreme Court Considers Arrest Records In Latest FOI Dispute
The Freedom of Information Act amendment requires the police agency to provide at least one of the following: an arrest report, incident report, news release or some similar report of the arrest.
For decades, police reports about crime, and the steps taken to fight it, have been the lifeblood of community news reporting. Reporters assigned to the "cop shop" have made regular pilgrimages to police stations to skim the blotter and then ask for additional information on any incident that caught their eye.
Now there's renewed debate on exactly how much information police are obligated to release. It's a discussion that predates the Newtown school tragedy and the battle over 911 tapes and crime scene photos. It affects much more basic information: records of arrests and details of the alleged misdeed.
The debate reached a crescendo of sorts last week, as a lawyer for the Freedom of Information Commission and an assistant attorney general, representing State Police, squared off in the state Supreme Court. At issue were two sections of the state Freedom of Information Act, §§1-210 and 1-215, which govern police records.
And at the end of the day, it appeared that the justices were skeptical of a legal theory that would give prosecutors and police departments complete discretion on how much information they have to release about a criminal case, once they have released the basic "police blotter" facts of the arrest.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers told Assistant Attorney General Terrence O'Neill that the state's interpretation seems like a "strained" reading of the two statutes.
The arguments were the first Supreme Court review of a 20-year-old amendment to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In response to a controversial 1993 decision, Gifford v. FOIC, the General Assembly in 1994 amended the law to require law enforcement agencies to provide a relatively bare bones "record of arrest."
The "record of arrest" amendment is §1-215 of the FOIA. It specifically requires release of the name and address of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the offense charged. It also requires the police agency to provide at least one of the following: an arrest report, incident report, news release or some similar report of the arrest.
O'Neill contended that the legislature's decision to give law enforcement agencies the power to designate which reports to include in the "record of arrest" release make the case off-limits to further review by the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), until after the criminal case concludes by plea or trial.
The FOIC disagrees. It cites §1-210 of the FOIA, which begins by stating that police agency reports are normally public records. It then goes on to list seven exemptions: Police can withhold names of confidential informants, signed witness statements, information that would harm a prospective law enforcement action, exotic investigative techniques, juvenile records, names of sex crime victims and uncorroborated allegations.