Sorrell, ACLU Clash Over Open Records Legislation | Off Message

Sorrell, ACLU Clash Over Open Records Legislation

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Bill Sorrell and Allen Gilbert found themselves in familiar territory Thursday morning: disagreeing about how much access the public should have to police records.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee began work on a bill to increase access to law enforcement records, the attorney general and head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont gave conflicting advice about how far to extend the public's right to know.

Vermont's public records laws are among the country's weakest, allowing some 250 exemptions. But a string of reports about actual and alleged police misconduct have spurred calls for greater police transparency.

Gilbert urged the committee to adopt the federal Freedom of Information standard, which presumes public access to criminal investigative records absent a specific harm that might be caused by their release. He noted that 21 other states and the District of Columbia have already adopted that standard. He said some Vermont police agencies have become "overzealous" in their secrecy, giving the impression that they have something to hide. And that, he said, has eroded trust in police overall.

"How can people trust what police are doing if they can’t even the see the records of something they did five, 10, 25 years ago?" Gilbert asked. "That's really extreme."

The Shumlin administration has also proposed adopting the federal open-records standard, but wants an exemption for any records that could "reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" — a provision that could leave law enforcment agencies with broad discretion.

Sorrell (pictured) countered with a less sweeping proposal: He wants the law to say criminal case files become public only when they involve alleged wrongdoing by a police officer while on duty. Files relating to investigations of private citizens should remain off-limits, he said.

To illustrate how opening criminal case files could invade the privacy of Vermonters, Sorrell cited one of the state's most notorious murder cases: that of Patricia Scoville, a 28-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in Stowe in 1991.

"Eighty-two men were asked to give a sample of their DNA as part of that investigation," Sorrell said. "Some men, for reasons that they were known to hike in the Glens Falls area, would be subject to having their names disclosed as once being suspect in a rape/murder case."

Sorrell said his office prosecuted another sexual assault case in which the victim kept a list of sexual partners with narratives about each encounter. Would those become public under the federal FOIA standard, the attorney general asked?

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears seemed to agree with Sorrell, noting that Scoville's father and he have a mutual friend in Bennington. "Your examples are ones that hit home to me," Sears said.

Photo by Andy Bromage

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