The Vermont Legislature has approved opening the criminal investigative files of police to public scrutiny, in a move modeling Vermont’s open records standards on a federal model.
A conference committee to debate differences between the House and Senate on the legislation came to an agreement by Tuesday morning, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
Senators like Sears were concerned about language inserted by the House, which made it public record when and if a grand jury of citizens met to decide whether to charge a police officer with police misconduct.
Currently, the existence of grand juries, as well as what they discuss during court hearings, is kept secret, especially if no criminal charges are filed against the defendant. The House’s language came upon the advice of Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Sears wanted that language removed, and the conference committee agreed.
In exchange, the House received an OK for moving privacy protections, designed to redact the names of victims and witnesses of crime, from actual statute language into the “intent” section of the legislation, which signals what lawmakers mean by their policy choices.
Previously, the Senate wanted that language in the statute.
Sears also said letters of instruction will be sent out to state officials to emphasize that lawmakers want victims’ names redacted, but that a redaction won’t mean that the whole record will be withheld from those who request it.
Under the legislation, police records produced during a criminal investigation are presumed open unless a government attorney successfully argued that one of six exceptions, which keep the file confidential, apply.
“I think it’s a tremendously important step for Vermont,” said Sears, who shepherded the legislation through as Senate Judiciary chair. State courts can benefit from the significant body of case law already amassed by federal courts in past battles over open records, he said.