The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case brought by the ACLU seeking the release of body cam footage. The group argues that the Burlington Police Department is violating the state’s Public Records Act by requiring a fee to access the records.
The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Burlington resident Reed Doyle, who had asked to obtain copies of body cam footage after witnessing an incident in June 2017. While walking his dog, Doyle saw an encounter between police officers and several youth. According to his account, one officer threatened to use pepper spray. He also saw one individual thought to be between 11 and 13 years old walking backwards with hands up forcefully pushed by an officer. ACLU Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz says Doyle submitted a written complaint and a request to review the records. “After the incident Mr. Doyle sought to hold the officers involved accountable and he was not satisfied with that process. He didn’t feel like there was any real accountability happening and so he wanted to take a look at the video to make sure he saw what he thought he saw, to see if it was different than he remembered and to see if maybe he was in the wrong. And that’s his right to be able to take a look at that video.”
Doyle turned to the ACLU after the Burlington Police Department told him he would be charged several hundred dollars for redactions plus more than $200 in advance. The ACLU filed suit claiming the department had violated the state’s Public Records Act, which bars government agencies from charging for inspection of public records. Diaz adds that since Doyle was a witness redactions were unnecessary. “It’s broader than body cameras. It’s about access to all records for Vermonters and these records belong to the people of Vermont. We should be able to look at them without having to pay. If we want copies that’s a different story. But if we want to just take a look at the records we really should not have pay for them.”
The ACLU’s core argument in the legal challenge is the Burlington Police Department’s violation of the Vermont Public Records Act. Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos is among those to file a Friend of the Court brief in support. “I believe strongly that access to government records is vital to our democratic process and to the overall function of government. As Secretary of State I wholeheartedly support Mr. Doyle’s appeal because I believe that the language of the statute is very clear: that free inspection of public records was undoubtedly intended by previous legislatures and it is the right policy choice to make. In order to ensure accountable and efficient government at all levels free inspection must be maintained.”
Condos says this case points to a systemic problem in Vermont government. “There has been an attitude in state government for many many years to deny first access to public records and let the person take them to court and then they’ll give them up if the court so orders. That’s the wrong attitude. If you look at the Vermont Constitution it’s very clear that government is accountable to the people. It’s really about right to know.”
Calls to the Burlington Police Department were not returned in time for broadcast. In a December 2017 letter to the ACLU, Chief Brandon del Pozo writes that “The state of Vermont’s Uniform Schedule of Public Records Charges for State Agencies allows the City to charge…. for time spent reviewing and redacting requested public records beyond the first thirty minutes….As your request is for redacted public records, my decision to produce the requested records with redactions is a granting of your appeal. If you do not wish to proffer the estimated fee, the City Attorney’s Office would be glad to work with you to focus more specifically on the records you want.”