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Vermont Supreme Court Orders Disclosure of Police Records

The Supreme Court of Vermont reversed in August 2012 the ruling of the Superior Court, Town of Hartford, Vermont, in a civil case in which appellant, journalist Anne Galloway, sought police records arising from a burglary call that resulted in the arrest of the home-owner. On May 29, 2010, Hartford P.D. responded to a call from a housecleaner saying that there was an unknown man ransacking the upstairs of the house at which she arrived for work. Upon arrival, police discovered a naked, incoherent man in an upstairs bathroom. The man was unresponsive to commands, and police officers pepper sprayed him and struck him with batons, handcuffed him and dragged him outside to sit on the sidewalk before discovering he was the homeowner. His disorientation was caused by a medical condition. He was treated for cuts incurred during his arrest and released.

Anne Galloway, under color of the Vermont Public Records Act (PRA), requested of the chief of Hartford Police records relating to the police contact with the homeowner. The chief denied the request, saying all records produced prior to their decision to release the man were part of an investigation and thus exempt from PRA.

Galloway sued for the records. Trial court ruled that the records were exempt from disclosure by virtue of exception five of the PRA, which excludes information resultant of an investigation of a crime. The court allowed that records generated after a decision to release the homeowner were subject to disclosure. Galloway objected but the court would not modify its position. Galloway appealed.

The Vermont Supreme Court picked up the case, with the express directive to construe events in favor of disclosure as per the legislative intent of the PRA and the overwhelmingly consistent consensus throughout the U.S. judiciary. The court determined that the cumulative actions amount to an arrest, and as such records reflecting the initial arrest must be released per the plain language of the PRA. The court in stating the conditions of the reversal assigned all records generated by the entire incident as a result of the homeowner’s initial arrest and thus to be disclosed.

In a joined concurring opinion, a much simpler rationale for reaching the same result was offered: there was no crime. No crime, no “records dealing with the detection and investigation of a crime,” no exemption from disclosure. See: Galloway v. Town of Hartford, 57 A.3d 684, 2012 VT 61 (Vt. 2012).

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Related legal case

Galloway v. Town of Hartford