Supreme Court Rules That Arrest Records in UVM Case Should Be Public | Off Message

Supreme Court Rules That Arrest Records in UVM Case Should Be Public


Wesley Richter, left, at Vermont Superior Court in Burlington in October - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Wesley Richter, left, at Vermont Superior Court in Burlington in October
The public may soon learn the words that formed the basis of a failed prosecution of a former University of Vermont student who was allegedly overheard uttering racist remarks at the school library in 2017.

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a police affidavit from the student's high-profile arrest is a public record even though a judge did not find probable cause for the misdemeanor charge against him.

University police cited Wesley Richter for disorderly conduct after a fellow student reported hearing him make inflammatory, threatening remarks about African Americans at the library. Richter's attorney said at the time that his client's comments were not threatening and were made during a phone conversation with his mother. 
The citation raised free speech issues and garnered media attention, and Richter's fellow students attended a court hearing to pressure for his prosecution. But a judge tossed the charges, finding that the state did not have grounds to move forward with prosecution.

Richter's alleged statements were never disclosed in open court.
As part of a school paper on racism and free speech, former Vermont Law School student Jacob Oblak sued the University of Vermont police force for access to the affidavit that was filed as part of Richter's initial citation.

The lawsuit raised a technical question about which set of state public records rules govern records in the case. Under court rules, when there is no probable cause, findings are considered confidential. But under Vermont's public records statute, arrest records are generally deemed public.

In a decision released Friday, the court concluded that "the cloak of judicial confidentiality" does not extend to a police agency record "simply because it was prepared for a dismissed criminal case." The court ordered the lower court, which sided against Oblak, to reevaluate the case.

UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said the university still plans to argue against disclosure on additional grounds.

Oblak, who sued pro se, said Friday that he pursued the case in the interest of government transparency.

"I don't understand how the public could possibly be able to govern its government if we can't understand why the police are arresting people when they do," he said.

The court's ruling is only the latest prominent public records decision to be handed down this summer. In July, justices ordered the release of a secret ruling interpreting a new media shield law statute that had been sealed as part of an inquest.

Also last month, Superior Court Judge Helen Toor ordered Burlington police to hand over bodycam video from a fatal encounter between an officer and a man outside the University of Vermont Medical Center, ruling that the video was part of an arrest record.

Read Friday's decision here: