On Appeal from Superior Court, Windsor Unit, Civil Division December Term, 2011 Katherine A. Hayes, J.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skoglund, J.
PRESENT: Dooley, Skoglund and Burgess, JJ., and Eaton and Zonay, Supr. JJ., Specially Assigned
¶ 1. Hartford police officers responded to a report of a possible burglary in progress, and used considerable force in restraining the suspect. The alleged burglar turned out to be the homeowner, who was disoriented due to a medical condition. Journalist Anne Galloway requested records relating to the police contact with the homeowner from the chief of police. The chief denied Galloway's request, as did the town manager when Galloway appealed the chief's decision. After Galloway filed an action to compel production of the records, the superior court ruled that under the Public Records Act's (PRA) exemption for police investigations, 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(5), the police did not need to provide Galloway with any records produced or acquired before the point at which the officers decided against charging the homeowner with a criminal offense. Galloway now appeals. We hold that because the homeowner's detention amounted to an arrest, the records in question must be disclosed under the PRA's proviso that "records reflecting the initial arrest of a person . . . shall be public." Id. Accordingly, we reverse.
¶ 2. The underlying facts of this case are drawn principally from the superior court's findings of fact and the documents the judge ordered released. Additional facts are drawn from the withheld documents currently in dispute. While it would normally be inappropriate to draw facts from sealed or withheld documents, because we ultimately order their release to the media, they will no longer be confidential. Moreover, much of the information contained in the withheld documents was also obtained by news reporters who interviewed the homeowner, and these widely distributed news reports were part of the record at the trial court. We recite the facts as follows.
¶ 3. On May 29, 2010, the Hartford Police Department received a report of suspected criminal activity at a residence. Three police officers responded and met with the woman who reported the activity, a housekeeper who had arrived to clean. The housekeeper told the officers that she smelled smoke and found the bedroom looked "ransacked." She discovered an unknown male upstairs in the bathroom. She found a lamp overturned that had been burning a nearby alarm clock. Three officers entered the home with guns drawn. They proceeded upstairs and found a large male sitting naked on a toilet. When one officer ordered the man to show his hands, the male was unresponsive. After repeated orders to the suspect drew no response, the officer sprayed the man in the face with pepper spray. The man began to move about the bathroom and the officers ordered him on the ground. The man failed to comply and remained unresponsive. The police attempted to handcuff the man, but he reportedly resisted. One officer then hit him several times on the arms and legs with a baton. The man was eventually handcuffed and dragged out of the house.
¶ 4. After about fifteen minutes, police determined that the man was, in fact, the homeowner, who suffered from a medical condition that caused him to occasionally lapse into an unresponsive state. His handcuffs were removed, and he was transported to hospital by ambulance where he received two stitches in his wrist--a cut from the tight handcuffs. The homeowner was not charged with any offense.
¶ 5. Pursuant to Vermont's Public Records Act, 1 V.S.A. §§ 315-320, Galloway, working for the investigative news website VtDigger.org, sought release of the Town of Hartford's records related to the incident, including audio recordings of the incident, the witness's 911 call, officers' reports, the dispatcher's log, and written witness statements. She made a written request for records to the chief of police. The chief denied the request on the ground that the records in question related to a criminal investigation and were therefore exempt from disclosure under 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(5) (exemption five), which exempts from disclosure:
records dealing with the detection and investigation of crime, including those maintained on any individual or compiled in the course of a criminal or disciplinary investigation by any police or professional licensing agency; provided, however, that records relating to management and direction of a law enforcement agency; records reflecting the initial arrest of a person, including any ticket, citation, or complaint issued for a traffic violation, as that term is defined in 23 V.S.A. § 2302; and records reflecting the charge of a person shall be public.*fn1
¶ 6. The town manager affirmed the chief of police's decision. Galloway then filed suit, seeking production of the records and an award of costs and fees incurred in bringing the action. The trial court denied the Town's motion for summary judgment and held a hearing on the merits to determine whether the records fell within the exemption found in § 317(c)(5).
¶ 7. The trial court concluded that the records created by police were exempt from disclosure because they were created during the course of an investigation into suspected criminal activity. However, because the investigation concluded without any resulting criminal charges, the court held that any records created after the decision that there would be no criminal charges had to be disclosed. It reasoned that the records revealing the outcome of an investigation are not records "of the investigation," but are its product. The court thus directed the Town to disclose documents in its possession created or obtained after the decision had been made that there would be no criminal charges lodged against the homeowner, but exempted from disclosure records made during the investigation.
¶ 8. The Town submitted a Vaughn index*fn2 of all records related to the event. The court held a second hearing in camera to determine what records should have been disclosed under the court's order. The court issued a decision on disclosure and listed the documents that the Town was required to disclose, which included fire department documents, two witness statements, and the chief of police's narrative report. The court concluded that the rest of the documents, including officers' narrative reports and audio and video recordings of the events, were part of the investigation and therefore exempt. It held that "[t]he investigation was only entirely complete after the narratives were submitted and a final decision had been made by the [Police] Department regarding whether to request the State's Attorney to bring any criminal charge." Galloway objected to this decision on the grounds that it contravenes the purposes of the Public Records Act, and that the criminal investigation ended when the handcuffs were removed from the suspect. The court rejected these arguments and declined to modify its decision. This appeal followed.
¶ 9. Our review begins with the statement of legislative intent in the PRA: "[T]he provisions of this subchapter shall be liberally construed . . . and the burden of proof shall be on the public agency to sustain its action." 1 V.S.A. § 315. We have long held that "the public interest clearly favors the right of access to public documents and public records." Caledonian Record Publ'g Co. v. Walton, 154 Vt. 15, 20, 573 A.2d 296, 299 (1990); see also Bain v. Windham Cnty. Sheriff, 2012 VT 14, ¶ 17, __ Vt.__, 44 A.3d 170 ("[W]e do not overstate the case in saying that open access to governmental records is a fundamental precept of our society." (quotation omitted)). We therefore construe exceptions to the PRA strictly against the custodians of records, and resolve any doubts in favor of disclosure. Bain, 2012 VT 14, ¶ 17.
¶ 10. Galloway argues that the records sought here must be made public as they reflect the initial arrest of the homeowner, 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(5), and that we should look to Vermont and federal criminal procedure law to determine whether there was a de facto arrest. She contends that the homeowner was involuntarily detained for a period of time long enough to constitute a de facto arrest, and as such, the records reflecting the initial arrest must be released.
¶ 11. We agree that the homeowner was arrested and that the records reflecting the initial arrest must be made public. Accordingly, we do not reach the merits of Galloway's argument that exemption five must be read to require disclosure unless the Town can demonstrate that disclosure poses a concrete harm to law enforcement interests. We do note, however, that many other states are guided by statutory criteria that provide police and courts with a far better and more defined framework in making decisions about disclosure of this type of record. The majority of our New England neighbors have adopted an open ...