CT: Records of a search and seizure are public records under state FOIA

Search and seizure records are public records under the state FOIA. The records of what are seized from the subject of the search are still the public’s business. Comm’r of Emergency Servs. & Pub. Prot. v. Freedom of Info. Comm’n, 2018 Conn. LEXIS 355 (Oct. 24, 2018):

The department asserts that the documents do not relate “to the conduct of the public’s business” as that term is used in § 1-200 (5) because they were created by a private individual and not the department. The commission found that the documents related to the public’s business for the following reasons: (1) “there was heightened public interest generally in the shootings and, specifically, in knowing how and why the shootings occurred”; (2) “the requested documents informed the investigation”; (3) “significant public resources were expended in conducting a massive, [yearlong] investigation, and in examining gun control measures and mental health issues arising out of the shootings”; and (4) “there will be no criminal prosecution through which the public otherwise would have any access to the requested documents ….” (Emphasis omitted.)

The trial court disagreed with this analysis, rejecting the notion that the question of whether a document was a public record for purposes of the act would depend on the public’s interest in a particular criminal investigation. Instead, the trial court concluded that, “although documents may be privately created and perhaps do not ‘[relate] to [the conduct of] the public’s business’ at the time of their creation, the fact that they were lawfully seized by the police means that there was probable cause to believe that, at a minimum, they constitute ‘evidence of an offense, or … evidence that a particular person participated in the commission of an offense ….’ [General Statutes § 54-33a (b) (3)]. At that point, they do relate to the public’s business. For these reasons, the court concludes that documents seized pursuant to a search warrant ‘[relate] to the conduct of the public’s business’ and therefore constitute public records under the act.” (Footnote omitted.)

In determining whether documents seized during the investigation of a crime are public records under the act, we are mindful that the purpose of the act is “to balance the public’s right to know what its agencies are doing, with the governmental and private needs for confidentiality. … [I]t is this balance of the governmental and private needs for confidentiality with the public right to know that must govern the interpretation and application of the [act].” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Dept. of Public Safety v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 298 Conn. 726. With this in mind, we agree with the trial court that documents that are not created by an agency, but come into its possession because there was probable cause to believe that they constitute “evidence of an offense, or … evidence that a particular person participated in the commission of an offense,” relate to the conduct of the public’s business. General Statutes § 54-33a (b) (3).

Moreover, our interpretation that documents seized by the police are public records under the act is consistent with other provisions of the act. For instance, as discussed previously in this opinion, § 1-215 (b) provides in relevant part that “[a]ny personal possessions or effects found on a person at the time of such person’s arrest shall not be disclosed unless such possessions or effects are relevant to the crime for which such person was arrested.” See footnote 8 of this opinion. If we were to accept the department’s claim that items, more specifically documents, seized by the police in the investigation of a crime do not constitute a public record, this provision exempting some seized items from the act would be meaningless. As we have explained, we must interpret statutes so as not to render any term meaningless. See, e.g., Connecticut Podiatric Medical Ass’n v. Health Net of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 302 Conn. at 474. Accordingly, we reject the department’s claim that documents seized by law enforcement in the present case are not public records.

This entry was posted in Warrant execution. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.