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State v. Gotavaskas

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 13, 2015

State of Vermont
Anthony Gotavaskas; State of Vermont
Grant S. Bercik

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Criminal Division. David Suntag, J.

          Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

          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 Defendants-Appellees.

         Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.


         Eaton, J.

          [¶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.

Page 538

          [¶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 incompetent.

          [¶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, 2014.

          [¶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 granted.

          [¶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 incompetency.

          [¶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 its decisions.

          [¶14] Section 4816(e) of Title 13 dictates that " [t]he relevant portion of a psychiatrist's report shall be admitted into evidence

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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 public:

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 public.

         The court then redacted certain portions of the reports without indicating what was being redacted in these specific cases or why.

          [¶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 ...

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