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Conn. privacy panel begins making recommendations

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SUSAN HAIGH | AP

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- A task force on Tuesday began piecing together a package of recommendations for Connecticut lawmakers on ways to balance the privacy of crime victims with the public's right to know.

With a Jan. 1 deadline approaching, members were debating a proposal that would allow some restricted public access to crime scene photos, videos, police audio and the 911 audio tapes from homicide cases. While members of the public and media would get an opportunity to privately view and listen to the material, they would have to go through a process to obtain copies and prove they have a legitimate reason for acquiring the information.

"You get a free listen, a free look, unhampered by any standard, any need to show anything," said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, a member of the task force. The panel was created in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Advocates for open government balked at an initial version of the proposal offered by Kane and others, arguing it would weaken Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act, which has been considered one of strongest in the country. Kane supports using a federal legal precedent as a possible standard for ultimately releasing the material, which prevents the release of information that's considered "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said the state has relied on a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling as standard. It prevents the release of information that's considered "highly offensive to a reasonable person" and is not a legitimate matter of public concern.

"We are opening up the door," said Murphy, who argued the federal standard is weaker than Connecticut's standard and has hindered people elsewhere who've sought public records.

Open government advocates voiced concern that changing the standard would put the burden of proof for releasing the information on the requester. Currently, the burden is on the state to prove that the information should not be released.

James Smith, a representative of the Connecticut Council of Freedom of Information, suggested the panel "stay away from the standard and let the Legislature decide." The General Assembly is scheduled to open a new session in February. It's unclear whether they will act next year on any of the task force's recommendations.

The task force, which has been meeting since August, has had difficulty reaching consensus on what, if any, changes should be made to Connecticut's FOI Act. They've struggled with mundane matters, such as whether a member can appoint someone else to vote on their behalf during an absence. They've also tried to grapple with major issues, such as whether they should be addressing only the privacy rights of homicide victims or those of other crimes, such as sexual assault.

The panel approved its first recommendation on Tuesday, the group's last scheduled meeting for 2013. On a 14-3 vote, they agreed to provide privacy protections to minor witnesses of crimes, exempting their identities from the FOI Act.

"We just did something for the first time after all this conversation and I think we should be proud," said Don DeCesare, the task force's co-chairman and a representative of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association.

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