Open Records Chaos in Connecticut

Public officials in Connecticut are in an uproar over a recent state supreme court decision that requires the addresses of police officers, corrections officers and firefighters to be redacted from publically accessible motor vehicle tax lists. The decision has implications for virtually every type of list that a municipality may keep, from voter registrations to dog licenses.

At issue is a Connecticut law, Conn.  General Statutes § 1-217, that prohibits public entities from disclosing the home addresses of various federal, state and local officials, including firefighters. The case began when attorney Peter Sachs filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the “grand list of motor vehicles” from the town of North Stonington. Some states refer to such a request by other names, such as open records request, public records request, or sunshine request.

The town provided Sachs with the list requested, but with 40 addresses redacted. The redacted addresses included a judge, state police officers, and corrections employees. Sachs appealed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission seeking all of the addresses. The case took three years to work its way through the administrative appeals process, and then court system until June 28, 2011, when the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with the town concluding that local officials must redact the required information. Here is a copy of the statute. Here is a copy of the decision. Conn_FOI_Case.

The problem now is how can a municipality possibly comply fully with the requirements of § 1-217? It is one thing for a municipality to redact the addresses its own police officers and firefighters who are known to fall under one of the 12 categories of exempt employees. But what about firefighters who live in the town but work in a different community? How can a municipality possibly keep track of the occupations of so many different citizens?

Joyce Mascena, president of the town clerks association, posed another puzzling aspect to the law: “If we have to remove the addresses from land records, then how would title searchers be able to do their jobs?”

For his part, Sachs is not finished. He has sent ten different communities a FOI request to test their compliance with the court’s ruling and is waiting for their response. He was quoted as saying “My point is to show that this is a state statute that, as it stands right now, can’t be complied with.”

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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