Connecticut lawmakers pass bill to keep murder records secret

7 06 2013

This may sound familiar to Utahns: A bill drastically changing government-records laws is secretly drafted and rushed through with little time for public comment.

In a scenario reminiscent of the HB477 debacle, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill that makes records of murder cases private. The bill, which was drafted in secret by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s staff, the state’s top prosecutor and leaders in the legislature, was a response to the Sandy Hook shootings, where a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers before committing suicide.

The bill, which did not go through the public hearing process and was passed at the end of the legislature’s session, exempts photos, film or digital images depicting homicide victims, as well as 911 calls describing the condition of a victim. It also shifts the burden of proof from the state to the requester, who has to make the case why a record should be released.

Malloy said the purpose of the bill was to protect the families from seeing the crime photos on the Internet. Some of the victims’ families support the move.

“I’m fully supportive of an open and transparent government, but I can’t understand how distributing graphic photos of murdered teachers and children serves any purpose other than causing our families more pain,” Dean Pinto, whose 6-year-old son, Jack, was killed in the school shooting, was quoted in reports as saying.

The law initially only dealt with the Sandy Hook case, but was expanded to cover all homicides in the Nutmeg State, which sets a bad precedent, critics warn.

“What they’re doing here is protecting the family … but it becomes a slippery slope,” said David Cuillier, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Anything that makes someone uncomfortable, the government can make secret.”

H/t to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.





Utah media fighting attempt to close hearing in soccer referee Ricardo Portillo’s death

15 05 2013

The Associated Press reports that lawyers for the teen accused of killing a soccer referee want the case closed.

The lawyers requested the order after a Salt Lake City television station asked for permission to film in the juvenile courtroom during the teen’s initial appearance. The teen is charged with homicide by assault after he punched referee Ricardo Portillo in the head after Portillo issued him a yellow-card warning at an April soccer game.

Portillo died a week later as a result of the injury.

A new court rule allows TV cameras in courtrooms for hearings. The rule does allow the judge to deny TV coverage in sensitive cases or where protected testimony — from children or sexual-assault victims — is given.

But the lawyers for the teen, who is not being named by most Utah news outlets because he’s only charged as a juvenile at this time, are going further than that. They want the judge to bar any reporting on the hearing.

The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KSL, KUTV, KTVX and FOX 13 have joined together to challenge the order.

Austin Ritter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, argues that closing the meeting goes beyond the authority of the judge.

And court decisions indicate that such a closure may be unconstitutional. In the 1986 Press Enterprise vs Superior Court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a First Amendment right for journalists and the public to attend court hearings.

The court found that a courtroom could only be closed under extraordinary circumstances, and there was no other way to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that the fair-trial right can be preserved when jurors are selected, screening out those who have become biased because of media coverage.

The Supreme Court has also frowned on efforts to stop reporters from publishing stories on newsworthy subjects.

“Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,” the Supreme Court ruled in its 1971 New York Times vs. United States decision.

A hearing on the request has been scheduled for June 14.





News organization seeking records on Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting

17 04 2013

Two years after a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head, documents about his case remain under government seal.
The Associated Press reports that three news organizations — The Washington Post, KPNX-TV in Phoenix and Phoenix Newspapers Inc., which publishes the Arizona Republic, want U.S. District Judge Larry Burns to unseal any remaining documents in the case, as well as release redacted information that is no longer required to be secret.
Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress, was shot in the head Jan. 8, 2011, by Jared Lee Loughner during a meet-and-greet outside a Tucson supermarket. Loughner, who pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges to avoid the death penalty, killed six people and wounded 12 other people.
Giffords resigned from Congress and is recovering from her injuries.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Office has released around 2,700 pages of documents, but at least four remain sealed, the Associated Press reported. The news organization argue that Loughner’s fair-trial rights are no longer at risk, and the information should be released.
Prosecutors have asked permission to take until May 8 to file their response to the request.





Utah legislator requiring mug-shot requesters to swear they won’t charge to remove pictures from websites

8 03 2013

Rep. Paul Ray doesn’t see HB408 as restricting access to jail booking photos, but how people use the mug shots.
But others see it as a dangerous foray into restricting public records.

Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring legislation that would require people requesting mug shots to sign an affidavit swearing they won’t require people to pay to have a mug shot removed from a website or magazine. Ray claimed some of the sites charge between $500-$1,000 to remove the pictures, a move he labeled a “scam.”

“You have somebody, for instance a  husband and wife arrested on a domestic [violence charge]. They book them in, not charge them and end up releasing them,” Ray said. “They’re trying to fix their marriage, and now their mug shots are all over these magazines, and they’re charging them to get it off there.”

One site, slcmugshots.com, runs advertisements for a firm that offers instant removal for $99, a discount from the regular $159 rate. The site also has a disclaimer that photos are not proof of guilt.

Ray said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder requested the bill. Winder’s office has stopped posting mug shots online, requiring those who want them to instead file requests under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act.
“The purpose of these mug shots is to identify criminals,” Winder told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Thursday, “not bully or harass citizens.” He said journalists can still file GRAMA requests for mug shots.

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office only posts low-resolution thumbnail pictures of those booked at the Utah County Jail.

Under Ray’s bill, those who charge to have the pictures removed after signing the affidavit would be charged with lying to a police officer, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Ray claims the affidavit would be required for those making bulk requests, but the bill indicates it would be required of those seeking a single shot.

While nobody spoke against the bill at the committee, which voted unanimously to send it to the full House for consideration, open-government advocates see it as setting a dangerous precedent.

Salt Lake media attorney Jeffrey Hunt said it could embolden government agencies to start asking people why they are seeking public records, which could chill records requests.

“The whole purpose of GRAMA is if a record is public, you should have it and not have to explain why,” Hunt said.
Jim Fisher, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah, said the bill appears to be an attempt to legislate journalistic ethics.

“It’s one of those laws that’s based on morality and not legality,” Fisher said.

Responsible journalists, Fisher said, typically do not run the names of people who have merely been arrested but not charged with a crime. But that is a question of ethics, not law.

Hunt said a better approach to the problem would be to enforce laws relating to extortion or fraud.

The Utah’s Right website does not publish the names of those whose criminal cases have been dismissed or have entered into plea-in-abeyance agreements. The site’s staff will remove the names of those whose criminal records have been expunged by the courts.





Lawyer wants disciplinary records on Utah Highway Patrol trooper

9 01 2013

The State Records Committee will decide tomorrow whether a defense attorney can see a Utah Highway Patrol trooper’s personnel records.

The committee will hear an appeal from Sandra Senn, an attorney representing Rande A. Lee, who was charged with driving under the influence, failing to operate a car in a single lane and driving 30 mph in a 25-mph zone in early 2012. Senn sought personnel records on Trooper David Wurtz, including disciplinary and training records, which she said could help her client.

The Department of Public Safety released a 2009 disciplinary report on Wurtz, showing he received a three-day unpaid suspension for deleting 36 incident reports without completing them. Probationary reports from 2006 and 2007 also noted Wurtz’s problems with spelling and grammar in reports,  driving in a less-than-safe manner to a fatal accident, putting himself in danger by not asking someone he pulled over to remove his hands from his pockets, and bluntly asking a driver he pulled over if she had been drinking.

But the department held back other records, citing a provision in the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) that says the records are protected, except for disciplinary reports where the discipline has been upheld and the appeals have been exhausted.

Senn, in her filing with the records committee, compared the UHP’s refusal to hand over the disciplinary records to the patrol’s reluctance to release information on recently fired Trooper Lisa Steed. Two judges had found that Steed lied on the witness stand and a memo surfaced accusing her of falsifying a report in a DUI case.

Steed is being investigated by the FBI, and some of those she had pulled over are suing her and the UHP, claiming they were falsely accused of driving under the influence.

“It is entirely possible that in the Lane DUI case, materials concerning Trooper Wurtz’s background are being withheld for an improper purpose, the same as they were withheld in Trooper Steed’s case. Or maybe not,” Senn wrote. “But the state has refused every attempt to have someone other than UHP employees or a UHP lawyer make the decision about what should be produced.”

The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. in the Courtyard Meeting Room at the Utah State Archives, 346 S. Rio Grande St., in Salt Lake City.





Persistence, public attention flushes out Utah Highway Patrol complaint statistics

21 12 2012

The good news is that, contrary to earlier reports, the Utah Highway Patrol does track complaints against troopers, and punishes those who break the rules.

Unfortunately, it took the earlier reports to get the UHP to provide the data months after it was first requested.

As Nate Carlisle reported, The Salt Lake Tribune requested data on complaints filed against UHP troopers and their disposition. At first, UHP spokesman Dwayne Baird said the department did not keep such statistics. Later, Baird said the department kept the statistics, but making them available would be a “laborious but not impossible task.”

After the Tribune’s Nov. 18 story about the lack of information from Utah on complaints against troopers — and how neighboring states track complaints, UHP officials said not only are the complaints tracked, but that supervisors are regularly updated. The highway patrol also provided data for the past three years showing the number of complaints and how many are being tracked.

Baird and Deputy Attorney General Lana Taylor told Carlisle that they did not know that the UHP had compiled those statistics.

The story came in the wake of swirling allegations of misconduct against Cpl. Lisa Steed, who is fighting her firing by the UHP.





Probationer and Parolee data

8 02 2011

Do you know how many probationers/parolees live in your neighborhood? Curious which crimes they committed? The Tribune’s database [ http://extras.sltrib.com/offenders/ ] allows users to search by zip code for information on offender counts and the crimes for which they were incarcerated. The highest offender count is 861 in the 84119 zip code, which spans portions of Salt Lake, South Salt Lake, West Valley City, and Taylorsville. Property crimes were the most prevalent offense type for probationers/parolees in the 84119 zip code.





DUI convictions climbing in Summit County

16 09 2010

Drunk and impaired driving convictions have been on the rise in Summit County since 2007, when the court reported 151 DUI or alcohol-related convictions, according to records drawn from Summit County Justice Court.
Convictions increased by 42 percent in 2008, with 215 total convictions. 2009 saw a 5 percent increase. Go to http://utahsright.com/h_dui.php? to search updated DUI charges for Summit County.





SLC DUI database updated

14 09 2010

UtahsRight.com updated DUI records out of Salt Lake City Justice Court this afternoon at http://utahsright.com/h_dui.php?

Vehicle information is not included in the online search, but analysis of available automobile data shows the most common automobile’s cited for DUI or impaired driving. Here’s the list:

  • 64 CHEVROLET
  • 64 FORD
  • 56 HONDA
  • 44 TOYOTA
  • 35 JEEP
  • 34 NISSAN
  • 25 DODGE
  • 24 PONTIAC
  • 20 VOLKSW
  • 17 MAZDA
  • 17 SUBARU
  • (Approximately 7% of the DUI database included some kind of vehicle information. 93% had no vehicle information listed).





    DUI checkpoint in Utah County this weekend

    24 08 2010

    Check out UtahsRight.com for records on DUI arrests, in light of a Salt Lake Tribune story on a sobriety checkpoint being mounted this weekend in Utah County.

    Links to records from 33 Justice Courts:

    http://www.utahsright.com/h_dui.php

    Learn more about the checkpoint:

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/50159728-76/checkpoint-county-office-utah.html.csp








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