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Vt. Legislature gives public access to police investigation records

By Anne Galloway,  founder and editor,  VTDigger421

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The press corps and the Vermont chapter of the ACLU scored a major victory in the Vermont Legislature last week. Lawmakers approved a change in the public records law that gives citizens access to records associated with police investigations of criminal activity. Gov. Peter Shumlin supported opening police records to public scrutiny, and he is expected to sign the legislation into law this month.

The change in legislation is the result of several high-profile media lawsuits against local law enforcement, including the Wayne Burwell case, and an advocacy campaign spearheaded by the Vermont ACLU that was supported by WCAXVTDigger and other local news outlets.

Burwell was beaten, pepper sprayed, handcuffed and dragged out of his home by the Hartford Police Department in May 2010. When law enforcement officials realized their mistake, they let him go. Three news outlets sought police records from the incident, The Associated Press, the Valley News and VTDigger. The requests were all rejected on the grounds that the Burwell was still under investigation.

VTDigger and the Vermont ACLU sued. The case eventually went to the Vermont Supreme Court and last summer the justices ruled that all of the records collected in connection with the detention of Burwell be released. Because Burwell was not technically arrested, the ruling applied only to records created before an arrest.

The court ruling was a partial victory for public records advocates. We had hoped that the court would make criminal investigation records subject to records requests before and after an arrest. Under current law, an exemption in Vermont’s public records act “categorically and permanently” seals all state and local police investigation records, including dash cam videos, police logs, 911 tapes, audio records and documents.

The court in a previous case wrote that the criminal investigation exemption required a legislative remedy. The Vermont Legislature responded by adopting the federal Freedom of Information Act standard, which requires the release of police information unless law enforcement can show that the disclosure would harm an investigation.

The Vermont Legislature added a provision underscoring its intent that the names of victims and witnesses should be withheld, however, lawmakers also made it clear that the redaction of names shouldn’t hamper the release of records.

The elimination of Vermont’s criminal investigation exemption will give citizens access to records that have until now been closed to public purview, and for the first time, the press will have an opportunity to examine police actions.