Category Archives: Legal Affairs

What’s Involved in a Firearms Background Check, Anyway?

by Categorized: Legal Affairs, Politics, Public Safety Date:

The intense battle over universal – or not-so-universal – background checks for firearms purchases further illustrates the deep cultural divide over guns, pitting those who see the checks as a profoundly obvious common-sense step to stem the supply of deadly weapons to criminals and the violence-prone against those who see it as an expensive hassle that will inconvenience legitimate gun owners while doing little to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

But what’s involved in a background check anyway? Continue reading

Gun Legislation Map. Look Familiar?

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Politics, Public Safety Date:

The Courant’s Jenny Wilson has put together a fascinating nationwide map showing the status of gun legislation in every state. Half a dozen locations, marked below in yellow, are considering multiple initiatives, some of which favor gun rights and some which favor gun control. But the other 44 states and the District of Columbia are pursuing legislation on just one side of the divide. In the map below, legislation leans towards gun rights in states shaded red and toward gun control in states shaded blue. (The darker red and blue indicates states where new legislation has been passed into law.)

That red-blue divide looks modestly familiar. With a handful of exceptions, the gun legislation map matches the state-by-state divide in the Obama/Romney election last November.  See for yourselves:

Gun Legislation Map

gunmap

2012 Election Map

electionmap

In Gun Database Debate, One County Decides “Rule of Law” Takes a Backseat to “Right and Wrong”

by Categorized: Data, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

A New York newspaper’s decision to publish a map with the names and addresses of area pistol-permit holders continues to generate backlash, with officials in one county now saying they won’t comply with a state law mandating that such information is public.

As reported here last week, the Journal News, a paper covering several counties north of New York City, published a map pinpointing the exact location of homes in Westchester and Rockland counties whose residents had permits to own a handgun. Putnam County had begun assembling the same data in response to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request. But following a firestorm of controversy, county officials have now scheduled a news conference Thursday to announce they won’t release the data.

“There is the rule of law, and there is right and wrong and the Journal News is clearly wrong,” Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant said in a statement to the Reuters news agency.

In this case, the rule of law is clear; the New York State statute covering firearms licenses states that “The name and address of any person to whom an application for any license has been granted shall be a public record.” But that has held little sway with local politicians, who were inundated with calls from gun owners upset at the prospect of being identified.

State Sen. Greg Ball called publication of the data “unethical” and blamed “asinine editors” for the decision to put the information on the Web. His office issued the press advisory for Thursday’s announcement, under the label “Putnam County Officials Stand Up For Law-abiding Gun Owners.”

The Journal News, which is owned by Gannett, quoted Ball as saying: “The county clerk has my full support to protect these law abiding citizens and if The Journal News thinks they can intimidate Putnam, they are sorely mistaken. Before I waver, the egghead editors at the Journal News can kiss my white, Irish behind.”

Reaction from readers and gun enthusiasts has been similarly harsh, leading to threats against newspaper employees, a local blogger’s effort to map the home addresses of scores of staffers at the paper, and a call by a New York gun group to boycott advertisers of Gannett newspapers. “The Journal News has put in harm’s way tens of thousands of lawful license holders,” officials with the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association wrote. “This action by the Journal News can only be viewed as an attempt to intimidate and bully lawful gun-owning citizens.”

Many journalists have also criticized the publication, saying that in the absence of additional analysis – such as comparing the database of permit holders against a database of convicted criminals or those named in restraining orders – the data has little public value.

But some have defended and praised the reporting, which showed that one in 23 adults in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties have permits to own handguns. Some commenters said they appreciate the ability to see which homes in their neighborhoods may have firearms, while others dismissed the claims that gun owners were put at risk by the publication, saying gun-permit records in New York has been public for years.

And one poster said critics have it all backwards, saying it isn’t the gun owners who should be upset by the publication. “It puts the unarmed population in harms way,” wrote one poster on Facebook. “Now the bad guys know who cannot put up a competent defense and therefore will choose the unarmed instead of a firearm owner’s house.”

Where the Guns Are: Map Pinpointing Suburban New York Pistol Permits Draws Fire

by Categorized: Data, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

Are there guns in your neighbors’ homes?

What about the homes where your kids play?

It’s a point of curiosity in many cities and towns, and the massacre in Newtown has sparked fresh debates over the proliferation of weapons in seemingly quiet communities.  But one New York newspaper’s decision to map the exact location of every pistol permit in its coverage area has created a firestorm of Westchester_Permitslocal controversy, including angry threats against newspaper employees.

In journalism circles, meanwhile, the publication is reviving discussions over whether there are limits to ethical publishing in the Internet age, when massive datasets – from public employee salaries to criminal convictions – can find permanent homes on the Web.

It all began last Sunday, with a story in the Journal News, a Gannett-owned newspaper covering Westchester and Rockland counties north of New York City. “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood” was the headline, and the story mostly focused on the paper’s effort to obtain pistol-permit data for the region, along with a discussion of whether such information should be public or private. In New York State (but not, since 1994, in Connecticut), the names and addresses of pistol-permit holders are public records by law.

It was a fairly routine article. But accompanying the story was an interactive Google map with dots identifying the location of each pistol permit in the counties. Zooming in and clicking on the dots revealed the name and street address of the pistol-permit holder – though possession of a permit does not necessarily mean an individual owns a firearm.

Fueled by social media, the response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Gun owners complained their privacy had been violated, and that the publication would make them targets for gun thieves. Some believed the paper was putting gun owners in the same category as sex offenders. One reader said publishing the map “is no different than Germans publishing the names of Jewish merchants and bankers back in 1933.” And by week’s end, blogger Robert Cox who runs “Talk of the Sound,” had published a Google map showing the home addresses, home telephone numbers and email addresses of 21 employees of the Journal News.

Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group, defended the map in a follow-up story. “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information,” she was quoted as saying.

But the publication created unease among some data journalists. On an email listserv for computer-assisted reporting, several journalists wrote that the data, without further analysis, added no value to the story, and that the wholesale publication would likely generate legislative efforts to block public access to the data. One called the publication “data vomiting” and part of a trend toward publishing click-friendly datasets with little context.

Still, the map was click-friendly, generating tens if not hundreds of thousands of views, including some, presumably, from area residents who did find it valuable to identify the possible location of guns in their neighborhood.

Media outlets in the past have run lists of gun-permit owners, and – as in New York State – have faced backlash from angry gun owners, including tit-for-tat publication of the journalists’ residential information. This week, critics of the Journal News reacted gleefully to the dissemination of the journalists’ addresses and phone number, though one wondered if it would increase the likelihood that they would become victims of violence.

“I’m sure none of these people have guns or the ability to stop ‘bad’ people from doing bad things,” one wrote.

But that’s not entirely correct. The original Journal News story, written by staffer Dwight R. Worley, included this unusual editor’s note: “Journal News reporter Dwight R. Worley owns a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum and has had a residence permit in New York City for that weapon since February 2011.”

Ethics Ruling Shows Delicate Balancing Act for Judges

by Categorized: Ethics, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Public Safety Date:

Every one of the state’s judges, it can be fairly presumed, heartily opposes drunken driving. So may a judge with a especially strong record on the issue accept an award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

That question fell to the state Committee on Judicial Ethics after a judge was invited by MADD to receive an award and speak at the group’s annual community dinner. The judge asked the committee if it was permissible to accept the award, speak at the dinner, and make a donation to MADD equal to the value of the meal.

The committee’s answer, released earlier today: No can do. Continue reading

Danbury Prosecutor Fired for Secretly Videotaping Women in the Courthouse

by Categorized: Employment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Technology, Transparency/FOI Date:

A veteran Danbury prosecutor accused of secretly photographing and videotaping women in the courthouse has been fired.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David M. Holzbach was terminated after an investigation found he had secretly recorded women, viewed pornography on his work computer during work hours and collected in his office “voluminous pictures of women, some pornographic in nature, while others depict women being bound or gagged or otherwise being subjected to degrading behavior,” according to documents released Tuesday.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, in a certified letter to Holzbach, said he gave consideration to Holzbach’s work record and expression of remorse. “However, your behavior is completely intolerable and is of such gravity that termination of your employment is required.”

The investigation that led to Holzbach’s firing began in mid-April, after a woman notified Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III that she had seen Holzbach secretly videotaping women with a special pen. It was at least the fifth time Holzbach had been accused of similar behavior, during his more than 20 years as a prosecutor. Less than two weeks later, Holzbach was seen using the pen again, and it was confiscated by Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Warren Murray, who was assigned to investigate the allegations.

Investigators subsequently found a user’s manual for a Brookstone Video Spy Pen “used to record females in courthouse and on grounds,” a hollow box with a one-way mirror in Holzbach’s office intended to be used to hide another camera, and four banker’s boxes filled with pictures of women, some apparently clipped from magazines and comic books. Continue reading

FOI Update: State Releases Personnel Records – Just Not to The Scoop

by Categorized: Employment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

Last week, The Scoop wrote about a Danbury News-Times article revealing disturbing allegations, dating back 20 years, against a prosecutor in the Danbury courthouse. In the article, current and former officials refused to comment on incidents involving the prosecutor, citing – as officials often do – a purported prohibition on disclosing information about “personnel matters.”

As The Scoop noted, there is no such prohibition, and in fact under Connecticut law, agencies are required, with limited exceptions, to release documents related to the conduct of the public’s employees. To illustrate that point, The Scoop filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking access to records of misconduct by the prosecutor, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David M. Holzbach, who has been on paid leave for several months, following allegations that he was secretly photographing female attorneys.

Less than a week after the FOI letter went out, records from Holzbach’s personnel file have been released – just not to The Scoop. The Danbury News-Times has an article this morning revealing that women complained to state officials about Holzbach photographing or videotaping them in 1992, 2002, 2006 and last April, but until now, Holzbach never faced harsher action than a reprimand.

The Scoop is an competitive as anyone in the journalism business, but in this case, the goal was to get the information out, and use the case as a reminder that under our state’s law, the public’s business is the public’s business. Kudos to The News-Times and reporter John Pirro for breaking the story and staying with it.

Dear Bureaucrats: Please Stop Suggesting “Personnel Matters” are Confidential

by Categorized: Employment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Danbury News-Times has a curious story this morning reporting that a local prosecutor is in hot water for transgressions that include, according to the paper, “using a camera concealed in a pen to take pictures of a female attorney’s legs and feet.” If true, that sort of behavior is, naturally, frowned upon. And the prosecutor, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David M. Holzbach, has been on placed on paid leave for the last several months, according to reporter John Pirro.

Pirro dug deeper into Holzbach’s 24 years as a prosecutor and unearthed other allegations involving his interactions with women, dating back as far as 1992. So Pirro contacted three of Holzbach’s current and former bosses – all of whom were familiar with allegations against the prosecutor – to find out what’s been going on. And all three had the same stock response.

Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky and Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane “called Holzbach’s suspension ‘a personnel matter,’ ” according to the paper, and they didn’t say anything else. Former Danbury State’s Attorney Walter Flanagan, who retired in 2007, acknowledged he received complaints about Holzbach, but “declined to go into detail about them, citing personnel issues.”

It may be the most commonly used no-comment excuse. And it’s completely at odds with state law.

So let’s take this opportunity to remind public servants, citizens and the media: “personnel matters” in Connecticut are, with limited exceptions, public matters.  As taxpayers, the public has the right – written in law and repeatedly confirmed by the courts – to know how their employees in government are performing their jobs.

As the state Supreme Court wrote nearly 20 years ago: “When a person accepts public employment, he or she becomes a servant of and accountable to the public.” Those words appeared in the seminal case Perkins v. Freedom of Information Commission, which everyone concerned with public transparency in Connecticut should read.

The Perkins decision established a two-prong test for determining whether a personnel record is exempt from mandatory disclosure as an invasion of personal privacy. Under the law, information in a public employee’s personnel file may be withheld “only when the information sought by a request does not pertain to legitimate matters of public concern and is highly offensive to a reasonable person.” A subsequent decision clarified that both prongs must be met to satisfy the exemption.

That’s a very high bar – a whole lot higher than simply proclaiming an issue is entirely off-limits as a “personnel matter.”

Not every document about every employee is publicly available. But there are undoubtedly portions of Holzbach’s personnel file that must by law be released. So we’re asking to take a look.

Below is a Freedom of Information Act request that we’ve sent out today to Holzbach’s supervisor. We’ll let you know when we get a response.

Download (DOC, 220KB)

Why Susan Bysiewicz Can Continue Running An Inaccurate Ad

by Categorized: First Amendment, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics Date:

As my colleague Rick Green reports, Senate candidate Chris Murphy is calling on television stations to stop running an ad from opponent Susan Bysiewicz that incorrectly claims Murphy is the biggest recipient of hedge fund cash among Democrats in Congress.

The Bysiewicz campaign has acknowledged the error but said it would keep the spot running, prompting Murphy’s lawyers to take to their word processors and lean on local stations to yank the ad. That’s not likely to happen, because misleading or not, broadcasters are generally required by law to run candidate ads exactly as they get them.

The letter from Murphy’s lawyers cites – as these sorts of cease-and-desist letters frequently do – a 1961 Federal Communications Commission ruling that broadcast stations have a duty “to protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising.” What the letter leaves out is that that duty is limited to commercial advertising – not political advertising.

When it comes to political ads – at least political ads directly from bona fide federal candidates – station’s are generally prohibited from censoring or refusing the spots, no matter how off-the-wall they may be. In those cases, the FCC takes the position that the marketplace of ideas – not federal bureaucrats – are the best defense against false ads.

In other words: There’s not much Murphy can do to get the spots pulled off the airwaves. But he is free to do all he can to hammer his opponent for the inaccuracy; like, for instance, sending letters from his lawyers to the stations – and the media – pointing out once again that the ad was wrong.

GlaxoSmithKline: From Pharmaceutical Powerhouse to Sophisticated Criminal Enterprise

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Health, Legal Affairs, Science, Technology Date:

News outlets across the country dutifully reported a week ago that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline had struck a deal with federal prosecutors, agreeing to pay $3 billion to settle criminal and civil charges related to its illegal promotion of various drugs.

Such deals have become sufficiently commonplace – Big Pharma has paid nearly $10 billion in the last 3 1/2 years to make federal authorities go away – that there may be a bit of fraud fatigue in reading such stories. But lawbreaking by pharmaceutical companies kills people and puts countless others at risk, so it’s worth revisiting the depth to which GlaxoSmithKline fell on its journey from respected pharmaceutical powerhouse to sophisticated criminal enterprise. And it’s equally worth noting that its crimes could not have been committed without the aiding and abetting of physicians and university scientists.

Continue reading