Vermont Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Government Transparency in ACLU of Vermont Public Records Case
Public records, including police body camera footage, must be made available to the public for inspection without cost
September 13, 2019
MONTPELIER – Today the Vermont Supreme Court handed down a decision in favor of ACLU of Vermont client Reed Doyle, whose request to inspect available records from a police use-of-force incident was denied by Burlington Police Department in November 2017. In its ruling, the Court held that “state agencies may not charge for staff time spent responding to requests to inspect public records pursuant to the [Public Records Act].”
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz who argued the case in April: “This ruling represents a major victory for every Vermonter, affirming that government transparency and accountability are vital to a democratic society, and that government agencies must comply with the Public Records Act. It also sends an important message that police body cameras will be used to hold police officers accountable for their actions. The public has the right to review public records without being charged exorbitant fees, and that is especially important when civil rights violations are alleged.”
In June of 2017, Reed Doyle was walking his dog near Roosevelt Park in Burlington when he noticed police officers engaged in heated discussion with a group of children, resulting in what he believed to be use of force by police on a young boy of color. Mr. Doyle submitted a written complaint to the Burlington Police Department and Police Commission about the incident but was never informed of any follow-up.
To review the incident himself, Mr. Doyle requested to inspect available records from the incident, including bodycam footage, but the Burlington Police Department, in violation of Vermont's Public Records Act, repeatedly denied access to those records. The ACLU of Vermont, filed an appeal on his behalf in 2017.
The Department conceded that Mr. Doyle had the right to inspect the footage, but would not allow him to do so unless Mr. Doyle first paid a fee. The Vermont Supreme Court’s decision rejected that approach, affirming the ACLU’s position that the plain language of Vermont’s Public Records Act “indicates that the Legislature did not intend to authorize charges associated with staff time in complying with a request to inspect.” As the Court’s decision notes, “This policy is based on the Legislature’s acknowledgment that ‘open access to governmental records is a fundamental precept of our society’ and ‘it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize [the] decisions [of officers of government],’ who are ‘trustees and servants of the people.’”
ACLU of Vermont client Reed Doyle: “When I witnessed what appeared to be an unnecessary show of force by Burlington police, I had no idea a request to review the body camera footage would be met with so much resistance. Body cameras are meant to hold police officers accountable for their actions – but we can’t do that if we put up roadblocks that limit people’s ability to review the footage. The Court’s decision restores my trust in our ability to keep public officials accountable.”
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Lia Ernst: “This decision is an affirmation of the core values we as Vermonters hold dear – that our democracy requires government transparency and accountability. Too often, state agencies fail to abide by those values and the letter of the law in denying members of the public access to public records. That is one reason Vermont is ranked as one of the worst states in the nation in government transparency. The Court’s ruling is a significant and positive step forward in realizing the promise of Vermont’s Public Records Act upholding the foundational principles of a democratic society.”
Mr. Doyle is represented by the ACLU of Vermont and cooperating counsel Anthony Iarrapino.
Thank you to ACLU client Mr. Doyle for his continued commitment to seeing this important case through and cooperating counsel Anthony Iarrapino for his many hours of work. Also, thank you to State of Vermont Secretary of State's Office, Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Journalism Trust, Vermont Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) for filing amicus briefs in support of Mr. Doyle.
The Vermont Supreme Court’s ruling is available here.