CT FOI Commission scores three major wins in court

By Russell Blair
Director of Education and Communications
Freedom of Information Commission

The Freedom of Information Commission recently scored a trio of victories in Connecticut’s courts: two decisions in favor of the public release of police records and a third affirming the Commission as the primary arbiter of public records disputes in the state.

Old Saybrook Police Records

In Spera v. FOIC, Superior Court Judge Matthew Budzik upheld a commission decision that ordered the disclosure of an Old Saybrook police officer’s exit interview.

The request for the interview, which included the officer’s negative comments about the police chief, was denied on the grounds that it was a personnel record that would be an invasion of the chief’s personal privacy if it were released. The Commission rejected the town’s argument and ordered release of the record, prompting Old Saybrook to appeal to Superior Court.

“Because the court concludes that how Chief [Michael] Spera runs the OSPD is a legitimate matter of public concern, the court concludes that Officer [Justin] Hanna’s exit interview is not exempt from disclosure,” Budzik wrote.

Police Reports In State Hospitals

The Supreme Court in Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services v. FOIC ruled that a police report concerning the choking death of a patient in Connecticut’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane could not be withheld from public disclosure.

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services had argued the report did not need to be released because of federal medical privacy laws and the patient-psychiatrist privilege. The Commission ordered the report’s release and a Superior Court judge affirmed that decision before the appeal to the Supreme Court.

The court’s majority wrote that it understood concerns about medical privacy and the public release of patient information, it also had to “acknowledge the unfortunate and undeniable reality that governmental secrecy can be used to conceal governmental abuse, corruption, and neglect.”

FOIC Primary Venue For Records Disputes

The Freedom of Information Commission filed as an intervenor in Connecticut State Police Union v. Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection, an action brought by the union seeking to block the public release of the names and badge numbers of troopers, including some who had been cited in an audit of disparities in police traffic stop data.

The Commission intervened and argued for the case’s dismissal on the grounds that it was the Commission, not Superior Court, that should first rule on any dispute about public disclosure of the records. Judge Rupal Shah agreed, writing in her decision to dismiss the union’s complaint: “The proper forum for adjudicating the release of trooper names should be the commission in the first instance.”