Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield and Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chairmen of the powerful Judiciary Committee, just “held” Senate Bill 381, the Government Administration & Elections Committee bill that would have created further obstacles for public review of crime-scene evidence. The hold kills the bill, although technically it could come up during tomorrow’s deadline for committee action. Another bill, a House version, still exists, however.
Following the meeting, which was in a literal scrum of committee members gathered outside the House, Fox said there wasn’t enough support for the bill. “I don’t believe we had the votes to get it out,” Fox told the Blogster. “At the end of the day it’s going to be a compromise that is going to be reached, if there is a bill to get done. I would like to see it resolved this year because it’s an important issue and it would be good to get behind something so everyone knows what it will be going forward.” Senate President Don Williams has indicated that both legislative versions are not acceptable, leaving open the possibility that come May 7, a provision in last year’s privacy/victims’ rights bill will sunset and open up on-scene recordings of first responders for public scrutiny. Another section of the bill to keep photos of homicide victims private, would remain if no legislation is passed. “I would like to see us come together and come up with a bill if possible,” Fox said. “I don’t know if we can yet.” Below is the summary:
AN ACT CONCERNING THE TASK FORCE ON VICTIM PRIVACY AND THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW.
1. narrows the exemption under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for law enforcement records identifying minor witnesses;
2. creates a procedure allowing members of the public to view and seek copies of images of homicide victims, which the law allows an agency to keep confidential if disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy; and
3. requires the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee to study all aspects of victim privacy and recommend legislative changes to the Government Administration and Elections and Judiciary committees by January 1, 2015.
EFFECTIVE DATE: October 1, 2014, except for the study provision, which is effective on passage.
RECORDS IDENTIFYING MINOR WITNESSES
The bill narrows the exemption from disclosure under FOIA for law enforcement records regarding minor witnesses by limiting it to records of witnesses to:
1. a drug sale or possession crime or other offense under the statutes regulating dependency-producing drugs;
2. a sexual assault, prostitution, or enticing a minor crime or the portion of the risk of injury crime involving sexual contact; or
3. a violent crime.
The bill also specifies that a minor, currently defined as someone under age 18, must be under age 18 at the time of witnessing the crime or making a statement about it to a law enforcement agency. Current law applies to minor witnesses of any crime.
This exemption allows agencies to keep law enforcement records confidential. By law, law enforcement records may be withheld from disclosure if: (1) they were created in connection with detecting or investigating a crime and are not otherwise available to the public and (2) the agency determines that disclosure would not be in the public interest because it discloses a witness’ identity.
IMAGES OF HOMICIDE VICTIMS
Viewing and Seeking Copies of Images
FOIA requires agencies to disclose public records unless a federal or state statute or specific exemption within FOIA provides otherwise. The bill requires agencies to allow people to view images of homicide victims, regardless of whether an agency could withhold them from disclosure as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under FOIA (see below). Viewing must take place at the agency’s office or place of business during regular office or business hours, as required for other records under FOIA.
The bill prohibits an agency from providing a copy or permitting the copying of the image if the agency reasonably believes copying could be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Anyone denied a copy can appeal the agency’s decision to the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) under the bill and current law.
Under the bill, an agency that receives notice of an appeal must make a reasonable effort to notify the next of kin of the victim who is the subject of the requested record or the next of kin’s legal representative. The next of kin or legal representative can intervene as a party in the appeal before the FOIC. The bill places the burden of proof on the public agency that is claiming that copying an image could be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The bill makes it a class A misdemeanor to remove, copy, or duplicate an image in violation of the bill’s provisions. Each distinct violation is a separate offense. By law, a class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Scope of Exemption from Disclosure
Current law allows an agency to withhold from disclosure under FOIA a federal, state, or municipal agency record consisting of a homicide victim’s image to the extent that disclosure could reasonably be expected to be an unwarranted invasion of the victim’s or his or her surviving family members’ personal privacy.
The bill specifies that an agency can withhold the image if it depicts the victim’s body or any portion of it. It allows the agency to withhold the image based on the unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, but no longer specifies that it is the victim’s or his or her surviving family members’ personal privacy.
Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know
PA 13-311 created this 17-member task force to consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under FOIA and the public’s right to know. The task reported its findings and recommendations to the legislature’s majority and minority leadership in January 2014.
sSB 388, favorably reported by the Judiciary Committee, contains similar provisions.
Government Administration and Elections Committee
Joint Favorable Substitute