Police public records at issue after Great Barrington officer's off-duty incident

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A town police officer is now on leave after an off-duty incident earlier this month involving the Massachusetts State Police.

Jonathan Finnerty, 37, was arrested for driving under the influence sometime during the week of April 13, according to sources in law enforcement who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The sources also said that Finnerty might have been arrested in Hampshire County, near the Berkshire County line. Courts in Berkshire County currently have no record of charges against Finnerty.

All details are under wraps, however, as town officials say their attorney counseled that privacy laws prevent them from revealing the nature of the episode or the officer's identity.

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said last week that while he can confirm that the officer is on leave, he cannot elaborate.

The town's attorney advised Pruhenski that details about the event should be kept private under a state law that exempts personnel matters from release.

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Town Police Chief William Walsh did not respond to messages left Monday.

And The Eagle has filed public records requests for the incident report with both the State Police and the town.

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But town officials might be under the same legal guidelines as police agencies when it comes to releasing information about the arrest of a police officer. Just last month, the state's high court said that police are held to a higher standard.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that information from incident reports are not necessarily exempt based on privacy under CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information), and that the public's right to know outweighs these privacy concerns, particularly for public servants.

That ruling came after Boston Globe Media Partners LLC in 2015 sued various law enforcement agencies, including the State Police, for denying reporters' requests for incident reports and booking photos of police officers caught driving drunk.

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"Police officers and members of the judiciary occupy positions 'of special public trust,'" the ruling stated. "By assuming their unique position of power and authority in our communities, police officers 'must comport themselves in accordance with the laws that they are sworn to enforce and behave in a manner that brings honor and respect for rather than public distrust of law enforcement personnel.'"

Jeffrey Pyle, a media and First Amendment lawyer with Prince Lobel Tye LLP, pointed to the court's decision.

"It held that a police officer who is arrested has no privacy interest in keeping that information secret," he said. "The idea that this sort of information should remain secret runs counter to the SPJ court's statement."

Last year, town police officer Daniel Bartini resigned from the force after State Police arrested him for driving drunk on the Mass Pike while off-duty. In August of 2016, Bartini had been stopped for the same reason by Sheffield Police but was never charged. And four months earlier, Officer Ryan Storti was killed in Stockbridge after crashing his car into a tree after a night of drinking.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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