(CN) – Attorneys for the Hartford Courant argued Thursday before the Connecticut Supreme Court that it should be allowed access to journals and other belongings of the gunman who massacred 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
The Courant has been fighting for access to Adam Lanza’s journals, drawings and other possessions. Lanza, 20, gunned down victims at the Newtown, Conn., school on Dec. 14, 2012, before committing suicide when police arrived.
The newspaper and reporter Dave Altimari filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection over its refusal to turn over Lanza’s seized belongings.
The items at issue were taken by police Lanza’s home and reportedly include: a spreadsheet of past mass killings, a screenplay depicting a relationship between a 10-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man, hand-drawn comics, school records and a spiral-bound notebook titled “The Big Book of Granny,” which portrays the life of a violent elderly woman.
State police argued the documents are private property that can only be used for limited law-enforcement purposes under search warrant statutes.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission disagreed and ordered the release of the records on the grounds that they may only be withheld if a competing federal or state law calls for their secrecy.
On appeal, Superior Court Judge Carl Schuman sided with state police, finding that Connecticut Supreme Court precedent allowed for a broader interpretation of the statute and wrote that it does not apply to “documents that were private property before seizure by the police and that a court would ordinarily order returned to the rightful owner by the end of a criminal case.”
Thursday’s arguments in the state’s high court addressed whether privacy and ownership rights related to the search warrant statues conflict with the disclosure provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
“It may be the plaintiff’s position that all seized property, or in this case rather no seized property, is subject to disclosure under FOI but that isn’t the FOI Commission’s decision. The FOI’s decision is that some seized documentary evidence may be subject to the FOI,” FOI Commission attorney Victor Perpetua said, referring to the state’s argument. “I’m concerned equally, if not more, about the kinds of records that would be prohibited from being disclosed in the future were the superior court’s decision affirmed.”
Justice Maria Kahn asked whether a risk exists that some documents may not fall under an exemption and could be made public after being seized through a search warrant, in a situation that could lead to possible defamation if the person is not charged with a crime.
“If public records like…a cancelled check that is evidence of a bribe paid to a public official [are] seized, those records become invisible to the public. I imagine far more records that would be of significant public interest that would be hidden by the lower court’s decision and I can’t imagine records that would be improperly released,” Perpetua answered.
William Fish, counsel for the Courant, added to this point.
“The fundamental problem with the state’s argument is that there are no words, there’s no provisions in [Connecticut Statute Title 54] Chapter 959 that address the questions that the court is collectively struggling with. Instead they’re relying on this private property concept,” he said. “What the state is looking to do here is…override [Chapter 959] entirely and almost write it out of existence because all documents seized by search warrant would be exempt in all instances, no exceptions.”
Judge Kahn asked if there would be a way to challenge a records request based on privacy.
“What we’re dealing with here are records that were clearly ‘used,’ ‘retained’…by the public agency. The motives of what might’ve caused this person to do the horrific act that took place in Newtown, Connecticut is certainly a matter of public interest,” Fish replied. “There’s a heightened public importance to this. There’s a heightened interest to see how the state conducted their investigation. These are matters of public concern, as much as the hypothetical of the check that might’ve bribed a public official.”
Assistant Attorney General Steven Barry, arguing for the state, rebutted and said the evidence from Lanza’s home was obtained for law enforcement purposes only, not for the public to review. He also weighed in on the bribery check analogy.
“Evidence itself seized properly is not a public record,” he said. “If [the check] was used ultimately in a criminal case it would be part of the public record, the description of it in a police report certainly would make that information public, the inventory which describes what it is, again, that would be public, but not necessarily the item seized itself.”
Arguments lasted about an hour and a half. It is unclear when the Connecticut Supreme Court will issue a decision in the case.