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Oblak v. University of Vermont Police Services

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 23, 2019

Jacob Oblak
v.
University of Vermont Police Services

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division Robert A. Mello, J.

          Jacob Oblak, Pro Se, Essex Junction, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Sharon Reich Paulsen, General Counsel, and Meghan E. Siket, Associate General Counsel, Office of General Counsel University of Vermont, Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. Petitioner, Jacob Oblak, sought an order from the Civil Division of the Superior Court compelling the University of Vermont Police Services (UVM Police Services) to provide him with a copy of an affidavit of probable cause after UVM Police Services denied his initial direct request for documents.[1] The Civil Division of the Superior Court upheld the denial of petitioner's request and dismissed his complaint. We reverse and remand.

         ¶ 2. In October 2017, UVM Police Services, a fully-certified police agency in Vermont, issued a criminal citation for disorderly conduct to an adult, W.R. The Criminal Division of the Superior Court found no probable cause for the charge and closed the case. Although the case was closed, it garnered significant public attention.

         ¶ 3. On March 12, 2018, petitioner requested a copy of the affidavit of probable cause from UVM Police Services pursuant to Vermont's Access to Public Records Act (the PRA), 1 V.S.A. §§ 315-19. Section 317(c)(5)(B) of the PRA states that "records reflecting the initial arrest of a person, including any ticket, citation, or complaint issued for a traffic violation, . . . and records reflecting the charge of a person shall be public." Petitioner limited his request to "the record . . . reflecting the initial arrest of a person per 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(5)(B)."

         ¶ 4. UVM Police Services denied access, stating that the "incident remain[ed] an open investigation within UVM Police Services, and the Superior Court, by not finding probable cause, has sealed all records related to possible charges asserted to date." Petitioner exhausted his administrative remedies, pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 318, and appealed the denial to the Civil Division. In his complaint, petitioner asked the court to: declare that the affidavit of probable cause is a public record and is not subject to the exemptions found in the PRA; order UVM Police Services to release the affidavit in its entirety or in redacted form; and award him all costs and attorney's fees as provided under 1 V.S.A. § 319(d).

         ¶ 5. UVM Police Services filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted. The PRA provides generally that "[a]ny person may inspect or copy any public record of a public agency." Id. § 316(a). The PRA then explains that there are exceptions to this broad grant of access. Id. § 317(c). In its motion to dismiss, UVM Police Services relied on § 317(c)(1), which exempts from public inspection and copying "[r]ecords which by law are designated confidential or by a similar term," and claimed that the records sought are made confidential under Vermont Rule for Public Access to Court Records (PACR) 6(b)(24).[2] PACR Rule 6(b)(24) states: "The public shall not have access to the following judicial branch records: . . . Records filed in court in connection with the initiation of a criminal proceeding, if the judicial officer does not find probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and that defendant has committed it." Petitioner, on the other hand, argued that PACR Rule 6(b)(24), by its express terms, applies only to court records and therefore cannot be considered as a law designating the records of executive-branch agencies as confidential for purposes of the exemption contained in § 317(c)(1) of the PRA.

         ¶ 6. The trial court concluded that petitioner was not entitled to access the affidavit under the PRA because it was made confidential pursuant to PACR Rule 6(b)(24). The court reasoned that the affidavit of probable cause is a record filed in court in connection with the initiation of a criminal proceeding and, because that proceeding was dismissed for lack of probable cause, it fell within the PRA exemption. The court noted that, according to the Reporter's Notes for PACR Rule 6, no statute or rule restricts public access to such records, but rather the rule reflected this Court's policy determination that such records should not be open to the public when probable cause is not found. The court wrote "[t]he clear purpose of the rule is to protect the privacy rights of those who have been accused of a crime without probable cause to support the accusation." Concluding that the affidavit of probable cause was exempt from public disclosure, the court granted UVM Police Services' motion to dismiss, which petitioner appeals here.

         ¶ 7. "We review decisions on a motion to dismiss de novo." Heffernan v. State, 2018 VT 47, ¶ 7, 207 Vt. 340, 187 A.3d 1149 (quotation omitted). Using "the same standard as the trial court," this Court "will uphold a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim only if it is beyond doubt that there exist no facts or circumstances that would entitle the plaintiff to relief." Id. (quotation omitted).

         ¶ 8. In this case, the agency, UVM Police Services, withheld the affidavit because it believed it confidential pursuant to a court rule. The issue is whether PACR Rule 6(b)(24)-which denies public access to an affidavit of probable cause where no probable cause is found contingent on a PACR Rule 7 analysis-creates "[r]ecords which by law are designated confidential or by a similar term," and are thus exempted from public access under § 317(c)(1) of the PRA. Put another way, may UVM Police Services rely on a policy decision expressed in the Vermont Rules for Public Access to Court Records to deny access to an affidavit that arguably is merely an agency record reflecting the initial arrest and charge of a person, neither of which are protected by the PRA? See 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(5)(B). We answer the question posed in the negative.

         ¶ 9. We recently discussed the distinction between the PACR Rules and the PRA in Inre VSP-TK / 1-16-18 Shooting, 2019 VT 47, ¶¶ 10-18, __ Vt.__, __ A.3d__. We clarified that "[r]equests to courts for public access to case records should be evaluated under the Vermont Rules for Public Access to Court Records" while agency records are subject to the PRA. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. We noted that "the Court adopted the PACR Rules for judiciary records generally, including case records in particular," id. ¶ 15, while the "constitutional predicate the Legislature invoked in enacting the PRA is directed solely at the Legislative and Executive branches." Id. ΒΆ 17 (citing Vt. ...


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