Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Criminal Division.
David Suntag, J.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with
David W. Gartenstein, Windham County Deputy
State's Attorney, Brattleboro, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua
O'Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for
Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.
[¶1] The State appeals the Windham Superior
Court, Criminal Division's decisions to seal certain
portions of competency reports prepared in connection with
court ordered competency evaluations of Anthony Gotavaskas
and Grant S. Bercik, defendants in two separate criminal
cases. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse and remand.
[¶2] The facts of the respective underlying
cases are as follows.
[¶3] During the summer of 2013, defendant
Gotavaskas was charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling
in one docket and providing false information and operation
without the owner's consent in a second docket. At his
arraignment on September 10, 2013, Gotavaskas raised the
issue of his competency, and the trial court ordered a
competency evaluation pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 4814.
[¶4] A competency evaluation was conducted
by Dr. Paul Cotton, who issued a report dated September 24,
2013 concluding that Gotavaskas was competent to stand trial.
Following the evaluation, a competency hearing was held on
October 17, 2013, during which the State offered the
competency evaluation into evidence, contending that the
entire report should be admitted under 13 V.S.A. §
4816(e), which requires admission of the relevant portion of
a competency report. Although Gotavaskas did not contest the
competency finding, he objected to the admission of the
entire report and offered a redacted version excluding
portions he claimed were not relevant. The State disagreed,
contending that because Dr. Cotton relied upon all of the
information in the report as a basis for his opinion, the
entire report should be admitted for its relevancy on the
issue of Gotavaskas' competency.
[¶5] The court redacted the competency
report to include only information regarding the
evaluator's impressions of Gotavaskas and specific
findings as to competence. The court admitted the nonredacted
portions of the report and excluded the redacted ones,
finding the portions it chose to redact to be " less
relevant" to a finding of competency than the
nonredacted portions. The State made a timely objection to
the trial court's redaction.
[¶6] In January 2014, Gotavaskas again
raised the competency issue, leading the State to seek
another evaluation by Dr. Cotton. In a second report by Dr.
Cotton, dated February 14, 2014, he found Gotavaskas to be
[¶7] A second competency hearing was held on
March 28, 2014, at which the parties stipulated to a finding
of incompetency. Again the parties disagreed about what
portions of the report should be received into evidence; the
State sought admission of the entire report, while Gotavaskas
only agreed that certain portions should be admitted. The
court received the report under seal but deferred ruling on
the admission of the report pending its decision on what
portions should be admitted, entering a finding of
incompetency. After the finding of incompetence, the parties
stipulated that Gotavaskas was a person in need of treatment
and he was committed to the care of the Commissioner of
Mental Health on an order of nonhospitalization (ONH).
[¶8] Although the finding of incompetency
had been made and ONH had issued, the court considered the
arguments over the still unresolved admission of the
competency reports, issuing a written decision on July 3,
[¶9] In September 2013, defendant Bercik was
charged with simple assault. He was arraigned and pled not
guilty. Several months after arraignment, Bercik filed a
motion for competency and sanity evaluations, which the court
[¶10] A competency evaluation was conducted
by Dr. Jonathan Weker, who issued a report dated January 8,
2014 concluding that Bercik was incompetent to stand trial.
[¶11] A competency hearing was held on
February 21, 2014, at which time the State sought a finding
of incompetency and the admission of the entirety of Dr.
Weker's report. Although Bercik agreed that there should
be a lack of competency finding, he opposed the admittance of
the entire report, requesting that the court temporarily seal
the report. The court made a finding of incompetency and
received Dr. Weker's report under seal, deferring ruling
on the admission of the report pending further briefing by
the parties. Although not admitted in evidence, the court
based its finding of incompetence upon the conclusions
contained in Dr. Weker's report.
[¶12] Bercik, who had previously been on an
ONH, remained on an ONH following the determination of
[¶13] On April 14, 2014 defendants
Gotavaskas and Bercik moved for the court to redact their
competency evaluations to include only the portions relevant
to a finding of competency or incompetency, pursuant to 13
V.S.A. § 4816(e) and the Rules for Public Access to
Court Records (P.A.C.R.) 6(b)(19). By similar entry orders
dated July 3, 2014, the court granted defendants' motions
to redact certain portions of the competency evaluations. In
deciding to redact portions of each report, the court
balanced the privacy interests of the defendants in not
having " less relevant" information disclosed with
the public's interest in knowing how the court reached
[¶14] Section 4816(e) of Title 13 dictates
that " [t]he relevant portion of a psychiatrist's
report shall be admitted into evidence
as an exhibit on the issue of the person's mental
competency to stand trial." 13 V.S.A. § 4816(e).
The admission of material into evidence customarily carries
with it public access to those records, and there is an
express policy within the P.A.C.R. that the public shall have
access to court records unless an exception applies. P.A.C.R.
6(a) (" The public shall have access to all case
records, in accordance with the provisions of this
rule." ). One such exception is contained in P.A.C.R.
6(b)(19), excepting from public disclosure " [a]n
evaluation by a mental health professional to determine the
competency to stand trial ... if not admitted into
evidence." Id. 6(b)(19). Additionally, under
P.A.C.R. 7(a) a court may, after a finding of good cause
specific to the case before the court and exceptional
circumstances, " seal from public access a record to
which the public otherwise has access or may redact
information from a record to which the public has
access." Id. 7(a).
[¶15] Recognizing the public access that
would be afforded to the defendants' private information
if the competency reports were admitted in their entirety,
the court's decisions, issued after the incompetency
determinations had been made, limited the admission of the
reports to unredacted portions. No findings were made as to
the portions excluded by the court, which made no
case-specific basis for the decision to exclude them. The
court discussed the P.A.C.R. and recognized the
defendants' privacy interests, finding it appropriate to
balance the defendants' interests with those of the
Typically, the evaluator's impressions of the defendant
and specific findings as to competence will be relevant
enough to the determination that they cannot be redacted or
sealed. However, personal history, past diagnoses, medical
and substance abuse history, and observations regarding
criminal responsibility, for example, may not be closely
related enough to competency to require release to the
court then redacted certain portions of the reports without
indicating what was being redacted in these specific cases or
[¶16] This Court has long recognized the
public's interest in access to information upon which
judicial decisions are made, an access necessary for the
maintenance of public confidence in the judiciary. State
v. Koch, 169 Vt. 109, 117, 730 A.2d 577, 583 (1999).
This presumption of public access is deep-rooted and so
strong that it applies even to pretrial criminal proceedings.
State v. Tallman, 148 Vt. 465, 475, 537 A.2d 422,
428 (1987). Such a presumption is especially critical,
however, at the junction of our criminal and mental health
statutes, where both the mental health of the defendant and
public safety concerns are to be considered. By requiring the
admission of relevant portions of a competency evaluation,
which are thus made available to the public through P.A.C.R.
6(b)(19) unless sealed under P.A.C.R. 7, § 4816(e) is
consistent with this long-standing policy.
[¶17] Narrowly viewed, the cases before the
Court involve evidentiary rulings concerning undisputed
findings of incompetency. No outside entity has raised an
issue of public access. Thus, the initial issue is whether
there is a justiciable ...