January 22, 2019 [updated January 29]

BURLINGTON—The ACLU of Vermont submitted opening briefs in its Vermont Supreme Court appeal Doyle v. City of Burlington Police Department, seeking access to police bodycam footage of alleged use-of-force and threats by Burlington police against children of color in 2017. The brief was filed on behalf of ACLU client, Reed Doyle, a Burlington resident who was denied the ability to view the footage unless he paid hundreds of dollars to the Burlington Police Department.

ACLU Staff Attorney Jay Diaz: “Public officials must be accountable to the public, and that requires transparency. To conceal public records behind a paywall violates democratic principles of open government and Vermont’s public records laws. Over the last two decades, the Legislature has repeatedly affirmed its intent: the public has always had the right to inspect public records free of charge. Mr. Doyle is simply asking the Court to enforce the law as written.”

Mr. Doyle’s brief is supported by three “friend of the court” briefs: one from the Vermont Secretary of State; a second from the Conservation Law Foundation and Vermont Natural Resources Council; and a third from the Vermont Journalism Trust, Vermont Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), to be filed by Friday. Each group urges the court to preserve the public’s right to inspect public records without having to pay a fee.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos: “Access to government records is vital to our democratic process and the overall function of government. As Secretary of State, I wholeheartedly support Mr. Doyle's appeal because the language of the statute is clear, free inspection of public records was undoubtedly intended by previous legislatures, and it is the right policy choice. To ensure an accountable and efficient government at all levels, free inspection must be maintained.”

In June of 2017, Mr. Doyle 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.

After his complaints to BPD went nowhere, Mr. Doyle asked to inspect available public records from the incident, including bodycam footage, to review the incident himself. BPD repeatedly denied access to the records and video, at which point 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 and additional paper records, but only after they had been heavily redacted—for which BPD would charge Mr. Doyle several hundred dollars, in advance, to begin making the redactions.

ACLU Staff Attorney Lia Ernst: “For Burlington PD to effectively deny access to police bodycam footage undermines the purported justification for using those cameras in the first place—as a tool of police accountability. Mr. Doyle’s case is yet another indication that legislative reform of our public records laws is long overdue.”

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.”

That ruling is 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.”

The ACLU’s brief is available here.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s amicus brief is available here.

The Conservation Law Foundation/Vermont Natural Resources Council amicus brief is available here.

The Vermont Journalism Trust/Vermont Press Association/NEFAC amicus brief is available here.