The Vermont Legislature has some work to do…

As this decision makes clear, Vermont FOI law provides no right of access to law enforcement investigative records — even after the case is closed! That’s a wee problem, folks…

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday granted a partial victory to the Rutland Herald in the newspaper’s effort to get access to records concerning allegations that Rutland city employees viewed pornography at work.

The justices issued the second decision in as many weeks in the Herald’s access-to-records fights. It said the paper can get access to disciplinary records stemming from the investigation of city public works employees, but the names of the workers will be blacked out.

But it barred similar access to a probe of city police department employees. The court ruled those records were exempt from disclosure because they were linked to the detection and investigation of crimes.

At the same time, the court suggested the Legislature re-examine the exemptions from disclosure under the Vermont public records law to see whether some criteria could be set up to make police investigative records public.

Robert Hemley, a Burlington-based lawyer who frequently works on First Amendment cases and represented the Herald, said the court re-emphasized that under Vermont law as currently written, there is no public access to records relating to police investigations of specific crimes — even when the case is over.

Vermont Supreme Court: Police Dispatch Records Are Public

Seems a bit amazing that it took a state’s high court to clear this little bit of FOI law up, but hey, that’s why litigation is so important…

Police dispatch logs are public records that must be disclosed except in limited circumstances, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday in overturning a lower-court decision that said those records are always secret.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of Stephen Bain, who had sought the records from Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark in a case that began in 2008. Bain, convicted of being a habitual offender, represented himself, according to the justices’ opinion, written by Associate Justice Denise Johnson.

A lower-court judge determined the dispatch logs fell within one of the many exceptions to Vermont’s Public Records Act — in this instance, the provision that allowed the withholding of “records dealing with the detection and investigation of crime.”

” We cannot assume, consistent with the purpose of the PRA, that simply because the records at issue were generated by a law enforcement agency, they necessarily are records ‘dealing with the detection and investigation of crime,’ ” Johnson wrote for the high court. “To so hold would allow for a ‘potentially limitless’ exemption.”

Vermont Passes FOI Reforms

Front view of the Vermont State House (taken S...

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Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law Wednesday a public records bill championed by open records advocates who say the changes are long overdue for a state that has consistently received poor transparency rankings.

The legislation, H.B. 73, awards attorneys fees and costs to those who fight public records denials in court and win, and creates a committee to review the number of exemptions to the state’s public records statutes.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor.

“This bill represents an important step toward more open government,” Shumlin said. “We’ve seen too many times in practice that the public records law hasn’t always lived up to its promise. . . . By requiring courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs in public records cases, this law deputizes every citizen to help hold public agencies — including the state of Vermont — accountable.”

More here….

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Exemption Creep in Vermont…

Front view of the Vermont State House (taken S...

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This is an exercise that all state open government advocates should engage in: scouring the statute books for those pesky hidden exemptions. In Vermont, there are 280 and growing…

In 2007, a state report said there were 206 exemptions written into Vermont’s open government laws.

In the 2010 election campaign, Jim Condos, then running for secretary of state, said the list of exemptions has grown to 230.

At the meeting of the Vermont Press Association on Thursday, Condos said the number now is more like 260 exemptions scattered throughout the state statutes.


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