Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos is siding with a man who sued the Burlington Police Department over the hundreds of dollars it wanted to charge him to view an officer's body camera footage.
The state's primary public records custodian filed an amicus brief with the Vermont Supreme Court last week asserting that public records should be free for members of the public to inspect. A lower court ruling in favor of the police department "serves to cloud the transparencies in Vermont government" well beyond police video, Condos wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont sued the department last year on behalf of Reed Doyle, a Burlington man who claimed to have witnessed a Queen City officer use excessive force against young teens in Roosevelt Park in 2017. Doyle sought a court order requiring the department to allow him to view body camera footage from the incident without charge.
But Washington Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout ruled in favor of the police department last August. Teachout determined that Vermont law, which allows agencies to recoup costs of complying with a request for copies of a public record, also applies when requesters seek only to inspect the record, as Doyle did.
In his amicus brief, Condos contends the lower court ruling will "embolden" public agencies to levy even more charges for those who want to inspect records — including media outlets.
"Pricing out the press," he wrote, will "render transactions of government more invisible, further diminishing accountability."
The Vermont Journalism Trust, Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition will be filing briefs in support of Doyle later this week, the ACLU said in a Tuesday press release.
The Burlington Police Department has said that redacting the body cam footage would require up to 10 hours of work, and that charging fees for the work is necessary to limit burdensome records requests. The department estimated Doyle would be on the hook for $220 to $370, a chunk of which he'd have to pay in advance.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told Seven Days that his department followed the ACLU's model policy for redacting body camera footage, which states that the department should retain an unedited version of the video. In other words, the redacted version is a copy of the record, he said, and should therefore be treated as such under public record law.
"The decision made by Judge Teachout affirmed that a person cannot inspect video footage without the government first copying and redacting it, as required by Vermont law to respect the privacy of children and minors,” del Pozo said, “and that the law further allows the cost of producing such a copy to be recovered by the government on behalf of its taxpayers.”