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Judge Blocks Lawsuit Against Connecticut False Police Tickets

Superior Court Judge Rupal Shah dismissed a lawsuit against the state Police Union that attempted to stop the release of names of at least 130 troopers who potentially wrote more than 25,000 false or inaccurate traffic tickets.

A state judge on Thursday, Sept. 7, dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Connecticut State Police Union that sought to block release of the names of troopers flagged for writing potentially false or inaccurate traffic tickets.

In dismissing the lawsuit, Superior Court Judge Rupal Shah left the question of whether to release records that name the troopers to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

"Until the commission acts, the court cannot consider the propriety of the disclosure or non-disclosure of a public record," Shah wrote in her ruling.

The commission said Thursday it was pleased with the ruling but declined to comment on whether the records should be released.

The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

One of the two named defendants in the case — the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the state police — declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations into the audit's findings.

The other defendant — the UConn Institute for Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which carried out the audit as part of its state-funded Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project — did not immediately return a request for comment.

The audit, released in late June, found a "high likelihood" at least 130 state troopers entered at least 25,966 false or inaccurate traffic tickets from 2014 through 2021. About 20 troopers have since been cleared for technical reasons, according to Ken Barone, the audit's co-author.

Union officials have pushed back on the audit findings, saying there may be other legitimate explanations for discrepancies the audit uncovered and urging the public not to rush to judgment.

In early August, the union sued to stop release of the names of those 130 troopers after media outlets, including CT Insider, requested them under the state's public records law.

The union said releasing the names would compromise ongoing investigations into the audit's findings and potentially put troopers at risk from members of the public upset over the audit. As proof, the union cited an Aug. 15 comment someone posted on its Facebook page that encouraged people to follow troopers home and "take their life."

The defendants argued the courts are not the appropriate venue to raise questions over public records for the first time. That power rests with the Freedom of Information Commission, a public watchdog created by the legislator to settle Freedom of Information Act disputes.

They also argued the exemptions the union cited to claim the names should be exempt from disclosure under the public records law are discretionary — an agency can use them to withhold certain records, but it is not required to.

While they were not named in the lawsuit, the Freedom of Information Commission and The Connecticut Mirror, which also requested the names, intervened to argue the commission, not the court, should hear the case.

On Thursday, Shah agreed, ruling that the state's Freedom of Information Act did not give her jurisdiction to intervene before the commission had a chance to weigh in.

In a statement to CT Insider late Thursday, the commission said it was "pleased that the court recognized the commission's role as the primary adjudicator of disputes regarding access to public records pursuant to the FOI Act."

"The court properly determined it lacked jurisdiction to grant the injunction sought by the plaintiffs in this matter," executive director and general counsel Colleen M. Murphy said in an email.

She added: "The commission does not take a position on the records that are at issue, as they are the subject of a pending complaint at this time."

William S. Fish Jr., an attorney for The Mirror, said the paper and its publisher were "very pleased" with the decision, which he called "thoughtful and thorough on what is an important public issue affecting the citizens of Connecticut."

The Mirror had filed an appeal with the commission after the state police said it would not release the names until the union's lawsuit was resolved.

That appeal is still pending, but it may take a while. Last year, an investigation by CT Public found that it took the commission eight months, on average, to reach a decision in contested cases.

At a court hearing Tuesday, the union argued the state police could release the names before the commission hears The Mirror's appeal — leaving the union with no chance to make its case before the commission or anyone else until after the names were already public.

An investigation by CT Insider in February found cities often release records after a requester files an appeal but before the commission has a chance to hear the case.

"My fear is there won't be another forum to go to," one of the union's attorneys, Jeff Ment, said at the hearing, "because there won't be an opportunity for the commission to determine the appropriateness or the inappropriateness of the agency's action."

In the end, however, the legal arguments raised by the plaintiffs, the commission and The Mirror won the court over.

"This is not a close case," Fish said at the hearing.

(c)2023 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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