Media to Get Insight on Police-Botched Arrest

     (CN) – Records of police beating and pepper-spraying a naked, confused man in his own home should be made available to the media, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled.
     A housekeeper called the police because she smelled smoke and found the bedroom “ransacked” with an overturned lamp.
     Police entered the home with guns drawn to find “a large male sitting naked on the toilet.”
     He did not respond to police instruction, so the police pepper-sprayed him, beat him with a baton, handcuffed him and dragged him out of the house.
     Fifteen minutes later, the police discovered that they had dragged the man out of his own house. He suffered from a medical condition that sometimes rendered him unresponsive.
     Journalist Anne Galloway of VtDigger.org asked the town of Hartford for its records of the incident, but the chief of police and town manager refused.
     She sued the town for production of the documents and lost. The Superior Court’s Windsor Division ruled that the records were exempt as products of an investigation into suspected criminal activity.
     The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, with a majority finding that the records should be public because the man’s 15-minute detention was an arrest.
     “The police used a considerable amount of force: the homeowner was pepper-sprayed and struck repeatedly with a baton,” according to the lead opinion authored by Justice Marilyn Skoglund. “His freedom of movement was entirely restricted for 15 minutes.”
     “We see no reason why the records reflecting the initial arrest should not be disclosed,” she added.
     In a concurring opinion, Justice TK Dooley said the records do not qualify for exemption because “there was no crime.”
     “Given that the language of exemption five is ambiguous, we should follow the Legislature’s explicit directive and interpret the exemption narrowly and in favor of disclosure,” Dooley wrote. “Second, the policy rationales for the exemption at issue are essentially absent where hindsight undeniably shows that there was no crime. The exemption for investigatory records serves the critical purpose of ensuring that police can carry on their investigations without interference.”
     Dooley noted that Justice TK Zonay joined his concurrence.
     In a brief dissent, Justice Brian Burgess noted that the Public Records Act includes “records reflecting the initial arrest of the person and the charge.” (Emphasis in original).
     “It could hardly be clearer that the Legislature intended to withhold information on criminal investigations and investigative detentions not resulting in charges, while mandating disclosure of arrests accompanied by a formal criminal charge,” Burgess wrote.

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