Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Open Records Bill Passes House, But Supporters Now Oppose It

by Russell J. Moore

After a two-year struggle, the House of Representatives passed an open records bill that supporters say did more to weaken the law than strengthen it.

The bill’s supporters, a diverse group including the Rhode Island Press Association (RIPA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters had been involved in a tense, delicate negotiation with the Attorney General’s office, state police and the Rhode Island Chief of Police’s Association for months.

The groups involved struck a deal all sides could live with that mandated arrest records that included time, name, age, address and charge be released within 24 hours. Originally, supporters hoped to have the arrest location included in the report but law enforcement officials thought it would intimidate witnesses.

But when the bill reached the House floor on Saturday, the bill became something the original supporters decided they could no longer live with.

The House bill mandates that law enforcement officials must release details of an arrest within 24 hours of a request for a police report but excludes narrative reports.

At that point, the bill became something weaker than is currently in place, according to Scott Pickering, president of RIPA and managing editor for East Bay Newspapers. Attorney General Patrick Lynch has consistently interpreted the current law to include narrative reports.

“The common response from police departments around the state would be a half sheet of paper saying who was arrested, at what time, along with their addresses and ages,” said Pickering.

He says without the narrative reports, the public would have no way of knowing the most significant details of an arrest.

But Representative Peter Kilmartin (D-Pawtucket), a police officer, said he thought the Senate bill would be a burden to police departments. The 24-hour request, he said, would be difficult for understaffed police departments to comply with.

Kilmartin also said releasing narratives could lead to botched investigations or giving law enforcement incentives to document less information.

“If an investigation is ongoing, the legislation as proposed may have an effect of forcing detectives to not put anything in writing,” said Kilmartin. “And I’m a guy who thinks there should be as much documentation as possible.”

The House bill is currently in limbo. House Sponsor Edith Ajello (D-Providence) asked that the bill be kept on the floor and not transmitted to the Senate. It is still unknown whether or not it will arrive back in the Senate chambers.

If it does, Senate Sponsor J. Michael Lenihan (D-North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Warwick) would be in the awkward position of lobbying against his own bill, he said yesterday.

“I would urge that the bill simply be not brought up or brought back to committee,” said Lenihan. “I would have trouble supporting that bill.”

In all likelihood, the bill will be held in the House and expire once the session ends. Interviews with supporters of the bill made it clear that they would make another go of it in the next legislative session.

Lenihan made it clear he wasn’t happy.

“I’m more than disappointed. I’m disheartened. This is a bill we’ve been working on for two years and an issue I’ve been working on for 10 years,” said Lenihan.

He’s not the only one.

“This is very frustrating. There were a significant number of groups who worked very hard on this. To see it unravel out of the blue was very troubling,” said Steve Brown, executive director for the Rhode Island Chapter of the ACLU.

Brown took issue with those who amended the bill, particularly the notion that narratives would jeopardize ongoing investigations.

“The notion that drug kingpins aren’t going to be aware of the arrest of their comrades until they read a police narrative is absurd on its face,” said Brown.

But Kilmartin had his own critique of the ACLU.

“I don’t think the ACLU cares what happens. All they care about is having all the information out in the open regardless of what could happen to investigations,” said Kilmartin.

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