VERMONT -- Critics of the USA Patriot Act have long decried the law's tendency to erode civil liberties, including personal privacy. What's often left out of those discussions is how the Patriot Act also puts up new walls of suspicion and distrust between the police and the citizens they're charged with protecting. Even as Rep. Bernie Sanders recently succeeded in getting the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal provisions of the Patriot Act that allow federal agents to search library records, some Vermont librarians were raising concerns that the post-9/11 law may have been used improperly in a local murder investigation.
Those concerns arose in the wake of the murder of 31-year-old Burlington resident Laura Winterbottom, who was found dead in her car on March 8. In the course of their investigation, Burlington detectives visited several local libraries to follow a possible lead that Winterbottom may have met her attacker online through a library computer.
But one local librarian -- police officials won't say who -- initially refused to turn over those records, claiming that the library could not violate a patron's privacy without a court order. According to a letter of complaint sent to Burlington Police Chief Thomas Tremblay from the Vermont Library Association, the officer "responded by threatening to call the FBI," and "invoked the term 'USA Patriot Act'" during a conversation with the town manager "in an apparent effort to intimidate the manager into compliance."
"We understand how difficult it must be for officers to sift through many leads and gather information they need to investigate such cases," the June 10 letter states. "However, we are very disappointed to learn that officers seem to be unaware of the special consideration that should be shown to library records. And we were disappointed to learn that when asked to provide a court order, an officer would resort to bullying tactics."
Such actions would be "entirely inappropriate," according to Burlington City Councilor Phil Fiermonte (P-Ward 3) who is also an aide to Rep. Sanders.
But Chief Tremblay "respectfully disputes" the claim that officers "invoked" the Patriot Act, though he does say that it was mentioned in the course of a conversation about the tactics police officers can use to obtain confidential files. Tremblay explains that after a person dies, her personal records, including those held by medical, dental and financial institutions, no longer retain the same privacy protections granted to the living. As a result, police are not required to go through the same legal procedures to obtain them.
Tremblay says his detectives simply wanted to "cut to the chase" and find out if Winterbottom had an account at that particular library. If she didn't, the officers wouldn't need to waste precious investigative and judicial time in seeking a court order. Tremblay notes that an internal affairs review of the incident concluded that the officers' actions were legal and appropriate.
"We certainly regret that anybody from the library association felt intimidated or threatened. That certainly wasn't our intent," Tremblay adds. "Our intent was to find the information within the legal scope that we had to do that."
The library eventually complied with the officers' request. As it turned out, Winterbottom did not have an account there, and the lead proved inconsequential in capturing her alleged killer.
Nevertheless, many of Vermont's librarians get prickly whenever law enforcement agents go snooping into their files. And that's understandable, considering the findings of a study released last week by the American Library Association. The survey of 1500 public libraries and 4000 academic libraries across the country found that law enforcement officials made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries for library information since October 2001.
The study didn't ask librarians to say how many of those queries invoked the USA Patriot Act -- librarians are bound by a gag order from revealing that information anyway. But the study refutes the claim made in 2003 by former Attorney General John Ashcroft that the American Library Association has bought into "breathless reports and baseless hysteria" about the government's interest in library activities.
"This study shows that that's not really true. The police often are interested in what people are doing in the library," says Trina Magi, Vermont Chapter Councilor to the American Library Association and a librarian at the University of Vermont's Bailey-Howe Library. "If that's the case, they should get a court order and we'd be happy to work with them."
For his part, the Burlington police chief considers this matter closed, but says he's willing to meet with the librarians if they have ongoing concerns. Fiermonte and his fellow councilors are still awaiting Tremblay's official response.