Lawsuit seeks inspection of video footage of police officers’ use of force, threats against children of color
BURLINGTON—The ACLU of Vermont is appealing its public records lawsuit, Doyle v. City of Burlington Police Department, to the Vermont Supreme Court, seeking access to police bodycam footage of an alleged use-of-force incident. The case was filed on behalf of Reed Doyle, a Burlington resident who is challenging the Department’s demand that he pay hundreds of dollars simply to view the footage.
ACLU Staff Attorney Jay Diaz: “Mr. Doyle wants to inspect the police bodycam video because he believes law enforcement used unreasonable force against children and was not held accountable. Charging him to do so violates Vermont’s public records laws and undermines the purported justification for using bodycams—as a tool for police accountability.”
In June of 2017, Mr. Doyle was walking his dog when he witnessed police officers threaten to pepper spray a group of children in Burlington’s Roosevelt Park. Mr. Doyle recalls that as one of the children walked backwards with his hands up, an officer pushed him forcefully with both arms. The boy, believed to be between 11 and 13 years old, protested the use of force and was then arrested.
Mr. Doyle submitted a written complaint to the Burlington Police Department (BPD) and the Burlington Police Commission about the incident, but felt there was a lack of substantive follow-up by BPD leadership. To review the incident himself, he asked to inspect available public records from the incident, including bodycam footage.
After BPD repeatedly denied access to the records and video, Mr. Doyle contacted the ACLU, which appealed those denials on his behalf. The Department conceded that Mr. Doyle had the right to inspect the approximately one hour of footage, but only after it had been heavily redacted—for which it would charge Mr. Doyle several hundred dollars, in advance, to begin redactions over the course of several weeks.
Because Vermont’s Public Records Act does not authorize charging fees for inspection, Mr. Doyle filed suit in Washington Superior Court seeking a court order requiring Burlington to make the video available without charge. In August, Judge Mary Miles Teachout denied Mr. Doyle’s claim, ruling that “[t]here is no overarching distinction in the PRA between seeking a copy of a record and seeking to inspect a record.”
The decision was at odds with a 2011 decision by then-Washington Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford, who wrote that “[t]he legislature was not conflating the concepts of’ ‘copy’ and ‘inspection’” in its 1996 Public Records Act amendments,” and that “the statute provides no authority for an agency to impose a charge for inspection of documents...The Act always has permitted the free inspection of public records.”
ACLU Staff Attorney Lia Ernst: “Public information should not be hidden behind a paywall. Vermont’s Public Records Act does not authorize charging fees to inspect public records, and yet this is a common practice among some state agencies and municipalities. This practice effectively denies Vermonters access to records to which they are entitled, weakening their ability to hold their government accountable.”