FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 8, 2022
Contact: Stephanie Gomory, Communications Director, [email protected], 802-223-6304 x111
Montpelier, Vt. – The ACLU is highlighting the lack of police oversight in state prosecutors’ offices by creating Vermont’s first centralized database for reporting and tracking dishonest cops – something prosecutors are required to do under U.S. Supreme Court precedent and state law. Building off of VTDigger’s 2020 investigative series Tarnished Badge and consistent with its findings, the ACLU’s own investigation has again raised questions about the adequacy of Vermont county prosecutors’ practices when it comes to disclosing the names of local police officers with potential credibility problems.
The results of the investigation have been posted to the organization’s website as part of the ACLU’s “Your Vote, Your Prosecutor” campaign, launched in May to draw attention to the influence of Vermont’s elected state’s attorneys.
ACLU of Vermont General Counsel Jay Diaz: “Elected prosecutors have a major role to play in holding police accountable, and that includes their constitutional duty to track and share information about dishonest cops with defendants in court proceedings. In Vermont, it appears that still isn’t happening consistently, and that’s a serious problem. As a matter of police accountability, public safety, and fair process in our court system, Vermont needs stronger policies to ensure prosecutors uncover and disclose the existence of problem officers.”
As part of its investigation, the ACLU of Vermont in 2022 sent public records requests to each of Vermont’s fourteen state’s attorney’s offices. The requests sought records related to "Brady" disclosures, named for the Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland. Brady and the line of cases that followed it established that when police officers commit acts that undermine their credibility – including bias, lying, and theft – prosecutors are obligated to disclose that information to defense counsel. Vermont criminal court rules impose the same general requirement, though the legislature recently declined to strengthen state policy in this area, despite the fact that Brady letters are widely recognized as a best practice for protecting the integrity of the justice system and holding police accountable.
The ACLU’s findings include:
- While Brady was decided nearly sixty years ago, at least 42 of the 50 Vermont officers named in Brady letters -- over 80% -- were named after 2018.
- Four state’s attorneys’ offices (Lamoille, Franklin, Grand Isle, and Orange) have evidently never issued a Brady letter.
- There is still no system in place to track officers with credibility issues who change jobs – officers with credibility issues can and do take new positions in new counties, avoiding the consequences of past wrongdoing.
- Vermont lacks clear statewide guidance on this topic, and yet out of 14 state’s attorney’s offices only Washington County’s had a formal policy of disclosing Brady letters to defense counsel.
- When determining whether to issue a Brady letter, Vermont state’s attorneys generally do not seek officers’ full record, including prior arrests, criminal charges, testimony, or employment records.
- Vermont prosecutors generate Brady lists by relying on information affirmatively volunteered by police agencies and officers in their county or instances of police misconduct covered in the media. This hands-off approach incentivizes police to conceal the facts and does not meet prosecutors’ constitutional obligations under Brady.
These oversight failures can have grave consequences for the safety and well-being of Vermont communities. In 2012, a judge expressed “grave concerns” that then-Shelburne police officer Jason Lawton had not told the whole truth on the witness stand, after he was contradicted by video evidence. Soon after, Lawton left Shelburne for the St. Albans Police Department. His new employer and the Franklin County State’s Attorney Office only learned about Lawton’s prior credibility issues from a reporter after Lawton was fired from the St. Albans PD for assaulting a handcuffed woman (he later pleaded guilty to simple assault).
In another example, Bennington officers have been repeatedly accused of racially profiling defendants in justifying a drug investigation. Racial profiling shows an obvious level of bias that undermines these officers’ credibility in future proceedings. Despite a lawsuit and numerous complaints against the Bennington Police Department from community members, the Bennington County State’s Attorney has never issued a Brady letter for any officers in the Bennington Police Department and there is no evidence that the State’s Attorney has investigated those concerns.
ACLU of Vermont Legal Director Lia Ernst: “Brady disclosures are essential for the overall fairness of the criminal legal system and as a police accountability measure. Vermont needs stronger and clearer guidelines, not only for prosecutors’ own constitutional obligations, but also for police accountability, community well-being, and faith in the judicial system more broadly. This election year, it’s important for Vermont voters to ask candidates for state’s attorney about their positions on this critically important issue.”
Due to the lack of a centralized state database for Brady letters, the ACLU has posted the results of its investigation on its website and will update the list of Vermont officers who have Brady letters linked to them, including access to the Brady letters themselves. The ACLU will also track the number of Brady letters produced by each state’s attorney.
More information about the Your Vote, Your Prosecutor campaign is available here.