Westport police violated law, FOI commission rules
WESTPORT — The police department violated state Freedom of Information law by withholding names from an arrest report, the Freedom of Information Commission recently ruled.
The case stems from an appeal filed by the Westport News in October, after police rejected an initial FOI request seeking the names of two people charged with breach of peace in town.
Westport police had blacked out the suspects’ names and addresses on the log, claiming because they were also victims of a family violence incident, the names could not be released.
“In this incident, the parties were both suspect, but also victims of a family violence crime as this was a dual arrest situation. Per C.G.S. 54-86e Confidentiality of Identities of Certain Victims, I am not permitted to release those names or addresses,” Lt. Jillian Cabana wrote on Oct. 9.
An appeal was filed by former Westport News reporter Sophie Vaughan on Oct. 18 with the state’s FOI Commission, arguing the names of persons arrested are public record and, therefore, should not be redacted.
Legal representatives from the newspaper and Westport Police Department appeared in January before the FOI Commission in Hartford to make their cases. Attorney Mark J. Sommaruga, representing the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, also attended the meeting to offer testimony in support of protecting the suspects’ names.
Citing another state statute (46b-38a) that provides local law enforcement with more discretion with family violence crimes and dual arrests, Sommaruga argued the legislature’s intent was that victims of family violence deserved protection. However, the commission concluded nowhere does the statute prohibit the release of arrested individuals’ names, even in the context of an arrest for a family violence crime.
In its July 10 decision, the commission ruled in favor of the Westport News, saying the arrest records were not exempt from mandatory disclosure.
The commission also concluded the department “violated the disclosure provisions” of state FOI law and ordered police to release a copy of the unredacted report, which was received by the Westport News on July 23.
Police were also ordered to strictly comply with FOI requirements when releasing arrest records.
“We are pleased with the commission’s ruling and hope to continue an open and transparent relationship with the police department,” editor Liana Teixeira said.
Cabana said despite losing the FOI case an opportunity was provided for clarification in a dual arrest where both are victims of family violence. The police department continued their fight in Hartford, which eventually led to Public Act 19-43 being signed into law on June 28.
“Hearing this case I think people realized there’s a problem here because the law hasn’t caught up,” Cabana said. “Now those names would be protected going forward.”