A recent Connecticut Appellate Court decision affirmed a Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) decision to deny Sarah Braasch’s records request for body camera footage on the grounds it was covered by a Connecticut Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption.
On May 8, 2018, Sarah Braasch, then a Yale University graduate student, called a Yale Police Department nonemergency line to report a woman whom she did not know was sleeping in the Hall of Graduate Studies common room. She further alleged that the person might have been sleeping there to provoke her as part of an ongoing conflict with other students who lived in the residence hall.
Police responded and separately interviewed Braasch and the accused woman, recording the interviews on their body cameras. They determined that Braasch’s allegations were unfounded and the other woman was a student who lived in the resident hall.
On May 23, 2019, Braasch filed a FOIA request with Yale’s chief of police and department of public safety record, seeking a copy of the body camera recordings generated during the May 8, 2018 police investigation. On July 9, 2019, the department’s assistant chief denied Braasch’s request on the grounds that the recordings were “created in connection with an uncorroborated allegation of a crime.”
Under Connecticut’s FOIA, records of law enforcement agencies that are not otherwise publicly available and which were compiled in connection with the investigation of a crime are exempt from disclosure if, among other things, they would expose uncorroborated allegations of a crime. FOIA also allows law enforcement agencies to review records related to uncorroborated criminal allegations one year after they have been created. If the existence of criminal activity cannot be confirmed within 90 days of the beginning of the review, law enforcement is directed to destroy them.
Braasch filed a complaint over the decision with the FOIC on July 27, 2019. A hearing on the matter was held on November 9 of the same year. During the hearing, Braasch argued that police’s claim that the records were requesting contained uncorroborated allegations of criminal activity were not true. “For example, the complainant relies on the fact that the accused was resting in the common room and such is not disputed by the respondents.” the hearing officer in the case wrote in a decision that would later be adopted by the FOIC. Braasch also argued that police were not responding to a report of criminal activity because she dialed a non-emergency number not to report a crime, but to “maintain the peace.”
But the FOIC did not find Braasch’s claims persuasive. “The evidence in the record overwhelmingly supports that the complainant’s allegations of criminal activity were uncorroborated because the other person did not trespass, nor did she harass the complainant as alleged.” the hearing officer’s report further notes.
Additionally, Braasch argued that Yale Police’s claim that the camera records contained uncorroborated allegations were undermined by the fact that they had not destroyed the records in accordance with FOIA. Yale’s police chief argued that would have done so if it were not for the pending appeal with the FOIC.
On September 9, 2020, the FOIC voted unanimously to adopt the hearing officer’s report, which recommended the complaint be dismissed.
Braasch then filed an administrative appeal of the commission’s decision with the Superior Court on October 19, 2020. The court dismissed the case after a hearing held on September 1, 2021, also finding Braasch’s claims unpersuasive.
Prior to the court’s decision, the Yale police filed a motion seeking an order to have the body camera records sealed. The police had previously provided the records to the FOIC for in-camera review, making them part of the case’s administrative motion. Braasch filed an objection to the motion. On September 20, 2021, the court held a hearing, and also reviewed the records in-camera, and granted the motion to seal them the next day.
Braasch filed an appeal of the Superior Court’s dismissal of her complaint and the sealing of the body camera footage with the Appeals Court on October 8, 2021.
The Appeals Court decision, released on April 4, 2023, was also not persuaded by Braasch’s claim that the court “improperly concluded that the recordings were exempt from disclosure.” Braasch, whose appeal contained many of the same arguments made before the FOIC, again argued that the commission had erroneously found that she made uncorroborated allegations of criminal activity. She also again argued that the facts she relayed to the police department were corroborated and she did not call to report criminal activity.
The Appeals Court also discussed Braasch’s claim that the FOIA exemption did not apply because the video was made available to the university’s administration. Braasch argued that providing the video to the dean but not her violated her equal rights. According to the court’s decision, Yale’s police chief testified at a public hearing that a copy of the investigation report had been provided to a university dean in connection with an investigation about whether Braasch should be disciplined over the initial incident. The chief further testified that Braasch had been offered the chance to review the video and had declined.
The Appeals Court disagreed with earlier findings by the FOIC and the Superior Court, which alleged the commission lacked jurisdiction to consider this part of Braasch’s argument but concluded that Braasch was not similarly situated to the dean. “Regardless of the fact that the dean did not seek disclosure of the recordings under [FOIA], the chief’s testimony reflects that the department made the recordings available to the dean of the university with which it was affiliated for what it believed to be a limited administrative purpose related to whether a private disciplinary proceeding should be initiated by the dean.” the court wrote, noting that this set the dean apart from Braasch, who publicly announced her intention to release the records publicly should they be provided to her.
The court’s final decision rejected not only Braasch’s argument that the records were improperly withheld, but her claim that the Superior Court improperly granted Yale police’s request to seal the body camera recordings.
“It suffices to observe that the commission and the court reviewed the recordings at issue, in camera, to determine whether the exemption…is applied. Having fully litigated and upheld the commission’s determination that the exemption applied, the court subsequently granted the motion to seal to protect the integrity of its judgment and to thereby shield the third party from any possible negative effects of disclosure of the recordings,” the court wrote. They concluded that it would be “contradictory” to permit public access to the recordings after finding they were exempt from disclosure.