RI ACLU Opposes Proposed Restrictions to Arrest Record Information

Posted: Dec, 17, 2010

In testimony submitted at a public hearing yesterday by the RI ACLU and Cooperating Attorney Jennifer Azevedo, the ACLU expressed opposition to proposed Department of Public Safety regulations that would significantly restrict information the Rhode Island State Police (RISP) would release about criminal investigations and subjects.  Under the Department’s proposal, only five specific pieces of information would be guaranteed to be open to the public: the arrestee’s name, address, age, location of arrest, and name of arresting officer. 

The ACLU is primarily concerned about the public’s access to arrest reports, a document about which the law is highly specific. Under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), “records or reports reflecting the initial arrest of an adult ... shall be public.”  However, under the Department’s proposed restrictions, basic personal information about an arrestee – including their race, hair color, and eye color – would be kept secret.  In addition, the regulations would allow the Department to remove any narrative information it considers might “deprive a person of a right to a fair trial,” “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” or interfere with an “investigation.”  As noted in the ACLU’s testimony, pretty much anything in an arrest report could fall into these criteria.

Historically, the testimony points out, RISP has not been the most supportive of open records policies.  Within the last few years, RISP has been the main opponent of legislation that would strengthen APRA, and the agency even convinced Governor Carcierci to veto this legislation in 2008.  RISP also publicly criticized the ACLU for making use of the open records law to seek information about language interpreter services in the state.  RISP complained that the request was onerous and troublesome, yet it yielded, by RISP’s own count, only 112 pages of documents.  The information gleaned from these public records led to the filing of a complaint by the ACLU with the Department of Justice. 

In 2008, RISP redacted a paragraph, allegedly for privacy reasons, from an arrest report of a person charged with disorderly conduct.  The ACLU obtained the full report while defending the person on the criminal charge; the deleted section had referred to the arrestee being advised of his Miranda rights and yelling “Free speech!” to a reporter photographing the arrest.  The Affiliate never received an explanation as to why RISP considered that information off-limits to the public, but is just one example of why public access to arrest reports is so important.

The ACLU also raised concerns with other aspects of the Department’s regulations, such as a proposal that the Department’s “complaint/incident report log” would not necessarily be made available to the public. This is a critical document that assures that the public has access to information with “up to the minute” police activity in their community. 

The ACLU has urged that the Department of Public Safety withdraw the proposed regulations, concluding that the proposed restrictions violate the Access to Public Records Act, and jeopardize the public’s access to information about crime and police activity in their community. A number of other open government and media organizations also testified against the rules.