The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is calling a decision from the Vermont Supreme Court released on Friday, which says the Burlington Police Department can’t force someone to pay money in order to watch an officer’s body camera footage, a victory for access to public records and transparency for state government.
The close decision, in which two of the justices dissented, concludes that “state agencies may not charge for staff time spent responding to requests to inspect public records pursuant to the (Public Records Act).”
“The PRA explicitly directs courts to ‘liberally construe’ the (PRA) to ‘provide for free and open examination of records.’ ... ‘(The PRA) represents a strong policy favoring access to public documents and records.’ 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 decisions (of officers of government,)’ who are ‘trustees and servants of the people.’ … Given this legislative policy, we should ‘resolve any doubt in favor of disclosure,’” the decision reads.
The ACLU represented Vermonter Reed Doyle in the case.
According to the decision, Doyle saw officers with the Burlington Police Department interacting with young people near Roosevelt Park in Burlington in June 2017. Doyle said he saw what he believed was inappropriate use of force against a youth of color.
After filing a complaint with the Burlington Police Department and receiving no response, Doyle contacted the department and asked to see body camera footage from the incident.
Doyle’s request was denied until the ACLU file an appeal in 2017.
“In his response to the appeal, Chief (Brandon) del Pozo characterized (Doyle’s) request as ‘seeking to inspect’ records. He stated that, pursuant to statute, the BPD could only produce a heavily redacted form of the requested records, and the staff time to review and redact the records would cost (Doyle) several hundred dollars. Chief del Pozo also informed plaintiff that he must pay a deposit before the BPD would begin reviewing and redacting the requested records,” the decision said.
Doyle’s request for access to public records without paying an expensive fee was supported by Vermont media.
A brief in support of the ACLU of Vermont’s appeal was filed on behalf of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the Vermont Press Association.
An unsigned statement was released by the Vermont Press Association on Friday that praised the Vermont Supreme Court’s ruling.
“Transparency is what this country was founded on. The U.S. and Vermont Constitutions both require it. It is sad some government officials get into office and don’t like having their bosses — the general public — looking over their shoulders while doing the people’s work,” the statement said.
James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said the government was “essentially hiding public records or concealing them behind a paywall” if access to them was contingent on paying a fee.
“That flies in the face of the Public Records Act and basic notions of government transparency and accountability that are behind the Public Records Act,” Lyall said.
If the fees required by the Burlington police had been allowed to serve, they would serve as a “major deterrent for people seeking public records that they’re legitimately entitled to and, in some cases, may reveal government of official misconduct,” Lyall added.
Lyall said Jay Diaz, the staff attorney for the ACLU who argued the case in April, was out of the office on Friday and not available.
A call to the Burlington City attorney’s office on Friday seeking comment on the decision was not returned on Friday.
The decision released on Friday sends Doyle’s request to view the body camera footage back to the lower court.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Harold Eaton, and joined by Justice Karen Carroll, said the majority opinion “bars public agencies from obtaining reimbursement for significant staff time in response to onerous requests to inspect records requiring redactions.”
“Without question, the laudatory policy underlying the PRA is ‘to provide for free and open examination of records consistent with . . . the Vermont Constitution.’ But at the same time the Legislature recognized that record requests ‘entail expending public resources to fulfill requests’ and thus established in the PRA ‘a process for public agencies to charge requesters for the actual costs of copying public records and for staff time associated with fulfilling requests,’” the dissent said.