(Host) The Vermont Supreme Court says police records are not automatically exempt from the state’s access to public records law.
In its decision, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the records should be kept confidential simply because they may have to do with the investigation of a crime.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) The case that triggered the Supreme Court ruling stems from a records request filed by Stephen Robert Bain.
Bain had been convicted of possessing stolen property and marijuana. But he argued that law enforcement had entered his home without a warrant. So he sued to get dispatch logs and other records from the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont sided with Bain on the access to public records case. Allen Gilbert is the group’s executive director.
(Gilbert) "What the court has done is indicate a standard that can be used in this and future cases for determining whether a police record is exempt from disclosure or should be disclosed. And that is really the significance of this ruling — that the court seems to be establishing a standard that basically is disclose the record absent any harm."
(Dillon) ACLU-Vermont has called for greater access to police records in several cases before the high court.
In the Bain case, the sheriff’s department rejected his request for radio dispatch and unit logs for officers. The department said they were all off-limits under an exemption that covers records dealing with investigation and detection of crime.
A lower court agreed with the Sheriff’s Department. But the Supreme Court sent the case back and instructed the lower court to see what records could be released. Gilbert said the high court rejected the notion that virtually all police records are exempt.
(Gilbert) "We think police have used the so-called C-5 exemption in a very broad fashion that has had the unfortunate effect of not allowing citizens to be fully informed about what police agencies in the state are doing. This is really significant in that it should open up the window a little bit wider into citizens being able to find out what police are up to."
(Dillon) Gilbert says the ruling could be an indication of where the court is heading on other police record cases.
A spokesman for the State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs Department could not be reached for comment on the case.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.