For decades, the names of juveniles involved in car accidents, fires and other public incidents have been part of the public record.
No more for the Vermont State Police. For the time being, it is no longer disclosing the names of juveniles involved in incidents its troopers deal with.
Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, ordered the change earlier this month while the agency does a legal review of how to handle the disclosure of the names of juveniles.
Asked Friday about the move, Schirling replied in an email, “I’m not prepared to talk about it, as I’ve not received the requisite legal assessment/briefing.”
Schirling, speaking during Gov. Phil Scott’s semi-weekly press conference on Friday, did say the legal review has not been completed.
The change came after questions arose following a double-fatal crash involving a teenage driver in Chittenden County. Traffic investigators say Isabel Jennifer Seward, 16, of Atlanta, Georgia, drove across the Route 7 centerline in Charlotte, crashing into a vehicle headed the other way and killing the Ferrisburgh couple inside it.
Because of the driver’s age, any legal action would occur in family court, where proceedings are secret.
“We take that seriously and we don’t want to impact this case or other cases while we figure this out,” Scott said at Friday’s press conference “If they hadn’t brought it up, we would still be doing the same thing we’ve been doing.”
“Temporary is the key word,” Scott said of the change. “We want to work through and make sure that we’re not implicating or altering a case — a future case — in regards to naming an underage driver. Once we get through that, we hopefully will get back to where we were before or have something that we can satisfy both needs.”
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Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said her office did not ask that the teenage driver’s name not be released, though she agrees it should not have been.
The Vermont State Police referred news reporters to George’s office for the teenager’s name, “and we refused to provide it,” George wrote in an email Friday. “It appears they then went back to VSP and VSP decided to release it.?”
George said her reading of state law tells her that information about a juvenile should not be released “unless any case related to the conduct is filed in [adult] criminal court.”
Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, informed staff about the change in an email Sept. 11.
“At the direction of the commissioner, please put a temporary hold on releasing any personal identifying information on juveniles,” Birmingham wrote. “The only exception to this temporary hold is if a juvenile has been charged with a crime as an adult. Earlier today, the commissioner’s office became aware of potential conflicting statutory and policy guidance related to the release of juvenile information.”
Birmingham said the agency asked for a “swift and full review” by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
“Until that is complete, this temporary hold is in effect,” the colonel wrote..
The change was first reported by journalist Michael Donoghue in articles that have run in several newspapers across the state. Donoghue is also executive director of the Vermont Press Association.
An editorial also appeared this week in the Caledonian Record titled “Public at any age,” and it was also published in other Vermont newspapers. It calls for Vermont State Police to again publicly release the names of juveniles involved in incidents they handle.
“The information is public under the Vermont Constitution, the Vermont Public Records Law, the rules of the Vermont DMV and the current Vermont State Police public information policy,” the editorial stated. “It’s pretty clear to us, that makes it public information.”
Lisa Loomis, Vermont Press Association president and editor and co-owner of the Valley Reporter, echoed those comments.
“We are concerned about it,” Loomis said of the state police position. “Historically, this information has been released.”
Loomis said the public is entitled to the information.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said the matter has become complicated with recent changes in juvenile and youthful offender laws. Those changes affect when certain cases start in adult criminal courts, which are open to the public, or in family court, where proceedings are confidential. .
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“I think accident reports are public records, unless and until a confidential proceeding is commenced,” Donovan said this week.
However, determining when a confidential proceeding has commenced is not always easy to determine. “That is the source of contention and confusion here that we’ve got to figure out,” the attorney general said.
What if a reporter asked police for the name of a 16-year-old driver involved in a crash? “If at the time you asked, there is no citation or no summons for family court, it is a public record unless you know that it’s going to end up in family court,” he said.
How soon after an incident do police know if a case will be considered in family court or adult criminal court, or in no court at all?
“It’s going to be a case-by-case analysis,” Donovan replied. “That’s what we’re all trying to grapple with.”
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