Fewer than 10 days ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the acting superintendent of the state police held a press conference to announce the arrest of a Saugerties man who was accused of anti-Semitic harassment.
The defendant, a 21-year-old named William Sullivan, is facing a misdemeanor charge of second-degree aggravated harassment after he was accused of calling a Jewish co-worker at a store an "f-ing Jew" and telling her she was "in the gas chamber now" because she was inside a refrigerated cooler. The governor's office rushed out a transcript, photos and video of the event, saying New York state will not tolerate hate crimes such as the one Sullivan was accused of committing. A mug shot of Sullivan was provided by state police, along with the key details of his arrest.
In a vacuum, it made sense for the governor to single out a high-profile arrest and use it as opportunity to disavow hate crimes. But in this case, the timing of Cuomo's public announcement of a misdemeanor criminal charge was interesting because of what's been going on inside the secretive state budget meetings back in Albany. That's where Cuomo and state legislative leaders came to an agreement to include a ban on the public release of criminal arrest mugshots and booking information. With the exception of public arrest information that would "serve a specific law enforcement purpose," the law now puts details about arrests under the category of personal privacy information that is exempt from New York's Freedom of Information Law.
The idea behind the law is to protect people from having their reputation ruined simply because they were arrested. But there's little practicality to such law in a society that values transparency in its justice system. And there's an important public safety reason for letting the public know about arrests.
The language of this proposed law sure makes it seem like the case of William Sullivan of Saugerties would not be made public unless and until it got into the court system. Would the governor still be able to announce arrests such as this?
Perhaps this is a case that would fall under the vague "law enforcement purpose" standard for releasing information, but even if that's the argument, it points to a deeper problem with this proposed legislation. It's remarkably generic and it's inviting the government to decide which people accused of crimes get this privacy protection. That's a dangerous idea.
It's also worth noting that this proposal was buried inside the thousands of pages of budget bills that were just getting printed at the end of last week and will likely start getting votes on Sunday. This measure has no impact on New York spending. There's only one reason to put it in a bigger budget bill, and that's to ensure it will get passed because lawmakers don't want to shoot down the entire public safety budget over a couple of sentences.
Our hope is that there's enough state legislators out there who won't stand for this cynical approach. Reject the budget bill that has this government transparency-killing language. Vote no and tell the leaders to remove the mugshot and arrest booking information ban from the budget, make it a standalone bill that gets a full public debate and allow lawmakers to vote on the merits.
The Citizen editorial board includes interim publisher Thomas Salvo, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.