Hearing officer says state police policy on arrest records violated FOI law

Hearing officer says state police policy on arrest records violated FOI law

Record-Journal

An attorney for the Freedom of Information Commission has tentatively ruled that state police violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act when the agency required written permission from a prosecutor for the release of documents while a case was pending prosecution.

Hearing Officer Lisa Fein Siegel found in her Nov. 9 report, stemming from a complaint from the Record-Journal, that the law enforcement agency’s policy violated state law regarding the release of arrest records during pending prosecution.

State police turned over the requested documents ahead of a September hearing before the commission, but Siegel said the agency’s policy also resulted in an unwarranted delay. The FOI Commission will vote Dec. 7 on whether it accepts Siegel’s findings and decision.

The Record-Journal complained to the FOI Commission in June after state police informed a reporter that she would need written permission to obtain arrest records — defined by statute as blotter information, a summary, and the affidavit or probable cause statement, depending on the type of arrest — for a drug-related arrest that occurred in Meriden in March.

On Sept. 8, state police provided the probable cause statement as well as a search warrant that led to the arrest, but the Record-Journal argued during a Sept. 21 hearing that the delay violated the FOI Act’s requirement for prompt access to public documents, and requested that the complaint still be heard.

State police, represented by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Sarnoski, argued that the delay in documents was justified, both because of the Record-Journal’s request and staffing limitations within the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s legal division.

Sarnoski said the Record-Journal’s decision to file the request with Trooper Kelly Grant, state police public information officer, and not the legal division, caused a delay. He also said the Record-Journal’s month-long delay in filing additional paperwork and the listing of the wrong arrest date — state police records list two different dates for the arrest — further added to the delay.

Siegel, though, said it was reasonable for Record-Journal reporters to submit FOI requests to Grant, who could then forward the query to the legal division. Additionally, she noted the Record-Journal’s follow-up filing on June 7 included a case number and said that should have eliminated any confusion about an arrest date.

Siegel said the requirement for a prosecutor’s written permission violates a state law passed in 2015, which requires that police allow the public to access arrest records, as defined by statute, even while a prosecution is pending.

She also said the delay from the June 7 filing to Sept. 8, when state police produced the documents, violated requirements for promptness.

State police acknowledged that the policy was outdated and changed it after the Record-Journal’s request, but Siegel also found in her report that the new policy was also in violation of the FOI Act.

The new policy allows for the release of arrest records, but a response form indicates that requesters must obtain a prosecutor’s permission for other documents. Siegel said the 2015 law allows for access to other documents, including those depicting arrests, unless such items qualify for another exemption, and that state law doesn’t allow a blanket exemption for documents during a pending case.

The FOI Act assumes that documents are available to the public unless they qualify for an exemption. The Record-Journal retained attorney Dan Klau, who is also president of the Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information, for the case.

msavino@record-journal.com 203-317-2266 Twitter: @reporter_savino


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