Thursday, August 26, 2021

MFIA Wins Important Connecticut Freedom of Information Ruling

Courtroom detail

The Media Freedom Information and Access (MFIA) Clinic Access at Yale Law School won an important ruling in August 2021 on the scope of the public’s right to inspect law enforcement records of unsolved crimes. The victory affirmed a ruling MFIA won last year from the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) requiring disclosure of police files relating to the unsolved murder of Barbara Hamburg over a decade ago. MFIA represents filmmakers Anike Niemeyer and Madison Hamburg in the case as part of its Local News Initiative

In October 2019, the two filmmakers submitted a FOIA request to the Madison (Connecticut) Police Department (MPD) to inspect files relating to the murder investigation. Despite thorough law enforcement efforts in the aftermath of the homicide, the police investigation had gone cold and generated no new leads for many years. Nevertheless, MPD refused to disclose its investigative files. It claimed that they fell within a FOIA provision that exempts law enforcement records from disclosure if they are “to be used in a prospective law enforcement action” and their disclosure would be “prejudicial to such action.” 

After an evidentiary hearing in February 2020, the FOIC ordered MPD to disclose all of its records relating to the Hamburg murder. Given the absence of any active leads and the length of time the investigation had been largely dormant, the FOIC held that MPD had failed to identify any prospective law enforcement action in which the records would be used and had presented only speculative harms from disclosure. 

In this month’s ruling, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Klau rejected MPD’s appeal from that order. The decision is significant in defining in detail for the first time the factors properly taken into account in determining how likely a prospective law enforcement action must be in order for the exemption to apply, according to Floyd Abrams Clinical Lecturer in Law David A. Schulz ’78. In this case, the court ruled that MPD failed to satisfy the exemption because it provided no evidence that a law enforcement action in the Hamburg murder is currently a “reasonable possibility.” 

The decision defends the value of opening up information in cases such as Hamburg’s. Klau noted that “allowing the public access to cold case files after an appropriate period of time is far more likely to improve the odds of an arrest and successful prosecution than it is to prejudice the outcome.”

Former clinic member Sara Sampoli ’21 wrote the briefs and argued the appeal. Her work on the case, along with that of Jake van Leer ’20, was highlighted in the first season of the documentary miniseries “Murder on Middle Beach,” directed by Madison Hamburg and televised by HBO last fall.

MFIA is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.

By Mila Samdub