A task force created after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has recommended that Connecticut lawmakers allow only restricted public access to certain crime photos, 911 audio tapes and other information from homicides.
The panel, created by the General Assembly, was charged with suggesting ideas to balance the privacy of crime victims with the public’s right to know, an issue of concern for many of the Sandy Hook families who voiced concern that photos of their dead loved ones would end up posted on the Internet.
On a 14-3 vote, the group recommended setting up a new system that will allow the public, including members of the media, to privately inspect the materials, also including video and internal police communications from a homicide. They would then go through a process to obtain actual copies, ultimately having to prove there’s a strong public interest in the information.
It’s unclear whether the legislature will take up the recommendations, which would guarantee limited access to some information but creates new restriction on access to 911 tapes.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed legislation that created the task force and blocked the release of crime scene photos, video and film depicting the condition of all homicide victims — not just those in Newtown — if the information could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the victim’s or victim’s family members’ privacy. That same law prevented the release of internal police recordings describing a homicide victim’s condition, but that restriction expires on May 7 and may be addressed by legislators.
That law did not, however, restrict access to 911 audio tapes, which was recommended by the task force on Tuesday. The panel recommended that transcripts of the calls would be available upon request for a “reasonable cost.”
Earlier this month, a judge ordered the prosecutor in the Newtown case to provide the 911 recordings from the mass shooting to The Associated Press, affirming a ruling by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission that the calls are not exempt from public information laws.
Some advocates for open government argued the recommendation will weaken Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. The proposal uses a federal legal precedent as a standard for ultimately releasing the material. It prevents the release of information that’s considered “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and puts the onus on the person requesting the information to prove they should be able to obtain it.
Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the FOI commission, said the state panel for years has relied on a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling as standard. It prevents the release of information that’s considered “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and is not a legitimate matter of public concern.
“The federal FOI statutes are nowhere near as good as Connecticut’s FOI statutes,” said James Smith, a representative of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, who argued that Tuesday’s recommendation will make it easier for the government to deny public information requests.
But Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said since the Sandy Hook massacre he has become aware of websites that post gory photos of victims and he understands the concerns of the Newtown families. He said using the federal standard will give the state “all sorts of federal law and Supreme Court case law” to rely upon to “understand when something should be released and when something shouldn’t be released.”
Also on Tuesday, the task force recommended the identity of minors who witness a crime of violence, sexual offense or drug offense should not be disclosed.