Watergate. Benghazi. The Kennedy assassination. The need for government transparency has been evident through the decades, as has the need for a tool to obtain documents and information to hold the government accountable.
The federal Freedom of Information Act was implemented more than four decades ago and now every state has FOI legislation. Connecticut passed freedom of information laws in 1975 and created the independent Freedom of Information Commission to ensure FOI requests are handled appropriately.
Over the years, however, the concept behind the FOI laws — to ensure government accountability and transparency — morphed into the media's ability to obtain sensational material about the private lives of crime victims to splash on newspapers' front pages or to broadcast on the 6 o'clock news.
This is an unintended consequence that no one could have foreseen decades ago.
We take for granted our right to privacy. Generally, our lives are free from media coverage and we enjoy anonymity. The intimate details of our lives — our relationship break-ups and our financial struggles — remain unknown to neighbors and acquaintances.
Our private pain is just that — private.
That all changes if our lives collide with crime. If we become a victim, or if we're otherwise involved in a law enforcement investigation, our privacy can be ripped away under the guise of "the public's right to know."
When a family is thrust into public scrutiny through homicide, violent assault, sexual assault or other criminal act, the ramifications can be daunting and traumatic. Sometimes, the crime draws the media's attention, which, in most cases, is unwanted. The family desires privacy so it can grieve and cope with the crime's effect.
Often, the trauma plunges the victim and those close to the victim into emotional turmoil, which in severe cases can result in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even as the family copes in the aftermath of crime, the police are collecting evidence, taking pictures and gathering statements and other related information. They cast a wide net to ensure all theories of the crime are reviewed and the true culprit is apprehended. This information may be part of a police report, which is introduced in court. In a single case, hundreds of documents, exhibits and photos could be collected.
Connecticut's FOI law is the country's most robust, and the commission enforces it. As a result, there is a greater likelihood that the private, intrusive information from the police investigations will get into the media. Freedom of information laws are supposed to be a window into government activities, not into crime victims' private lives. Crime scene photos have little, if any, value in ensuring governmental accountability.
Over the years, the analysis as to whether information sought through FOI is "in the public's interest" has been watered down. Now, if a file is in a public place, then turn it over to whoever wants it. End of story.
Following the Newtown shootings, the General Assembly approved a measure barring the release of homicide photos to the public or media. A state task force is debating the issue. If the ban holds, it's a good place to start. But if it remains limited to homicides, it doesn't go far enough. Why should victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, for example, have to worry about photos or other gory crime details becoming public?
Further, the state law is limited to images "created" by the law enforcement community. What about images created by another agency or individuals that end up in police files? What if the killer photographs a murder victim and that photo becomes evidence? Is that photograph available to the public? The legislation enacted seems to indicate it would be.
What about other materials uncovered in a criminal investigation — financial documents, personal emails, notes or letters? If those become part of a police report or court case file, that private information is changed, forever, into public information.
In contrast, state employees' personnel files are protected from public view. If freedom of information laws are meant to promote government transparency, then perhaps it's those files that should be open. After all, newspapers and television stations are more likely to find clues about corruption there than in crime victims' private information.
Michelle Cruz, a former Massachusetts prosecutor and Connecticut state victim advocate, is a lawyer in Hartford. A version of this piece first appeared in The Connecticut Law Tribune.