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State Senate Leader Opposes Privacy Bill As Affront To FOI

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. testifying against a bill that he says would erode the Freedom of Information Act.

In testimony delivered in quick succession Monday to two legislative committees, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, strongly condemned post-Newtown legislation that would restrict public access to 9-1-1 recordings, police photographs and names of witnesses in drug or violent crimes.

“If enacted, this would result in an unprecedented denial of previously available information, with no necessary relation to witnesses being threatened or endangered, and no relation to the security of an investigation,” Williams said. “It is a suppression of information for its own sake.”

It was just one opinion, but it came from the only leader who can single-handedly block legislation from coming to a vote in the Senate. Williams made a point of testifying before both committees where two similar bills are pending.

The legislation was produced by a legislative task force on victim privacy that was created last year as the families of some victims of the Newtown school shooting asked that photographs of the crime scene be forever kept secret.

The law passed last year allows authorities to withhold "a photograph, film, video or digital or other visual image depicting the victim of a homicide, to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members."

Williams, a lawyer who was a radio reporter before attending law school, said the legislation, proposed by a task force created after Newtown to protect the privacy of crime victims and their families, suffered from flaws in drafting and contradictions in logic.

The legislation virtually guarantees that the release of 9-1-1 recordings in homicides would be delayed as “unwarranted invasions of privacy” at the discretion of law enforcement or victims’ families, but they eventually would be released under current case law.

The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that public information can be withheld for privacy reasons only if it does not pertain to a legitimate matter of public concern and if release of the information would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

By definition, Williams said, any homicide would be a legitimate matter of public concern.

Sen. Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, who was a member of the task force, defended the legislation as an attempt to balance privacy interests against the public's right to know.

He said that 9-1-1 recordings and crime-scene photographs could be automatically viewed by the public and press, with a conditional right to seek copies.

"This structure guarantees public access to all records," Fasano said in testimony submitted to legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee. "It is merely the reproduction of such records that would be conditional."

The Freedom of Information Commission could order the release of photos or audio that are deemed to advance a "significant public interest," Fasano said.

The bill is opposed by the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, but the radio executive who was co-chairman of the task force defended it was restoring limited access to evidence taken away last year.

Don DeCesare, the president and general manager of two small AM radio stations, WLIS in Old Saybrook and WMRD in Middletown, called that an advance for freedom of information.

"The most critical of homicide crime scene materials remain unavailable to public scrutiny," he said in his written testimony.

Morgan Rueckert and Douglas P. Mahoney, two lawyers representing the families of the 26 students and staff killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, submitted testimony objecting to the bill, because it would allow the photos to be viewed.

That change breaks faith with the families, they said in written testimony.

Daniel J. Klau, representing the media and the law section of the Connecticut Bar Association, said the legislation was a solution in search of a problem. Crime scene photos have been subject to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act since 1975, but he could find no instance of such photos being printed or posted on the web as the result of an FOI request.

In the Cheshire home invasion case, where three people were brutally slain, no photos of the three victims have been published, even though they fell under the state Freedom of Information Act, he said. The limited crime scene photos that were published in that case came from evidence at trial, he said.

"Our nation’s and our state’s commitment to government transparency is reflected in a presumption that is deeply embedded in the law, namely, the presumption in favor of public access to government documents," Klau said. "The question is not whether or why a member of the public 'needs' access to government information. Rather, the question is whether the government has a compelling reason for non-disclosure that trumps the public’s presumptive right to know. Ours is a 'right to know,' not a 'need to know,' society."

(This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, non-profit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.)

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