AG challenger pushes to open police recordsJune 12,2012By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU
MONTPELIER — T.J. Donovan, a candidate for Vermont attorney general, is calling for greater public access to police records, a move his campaign hopes will distinguish him from William Sorrell, the incumbent Donovan will try to defeat in the Democratic primary.
Donovan on Tuesday announced his support for a proposal to overhaul the most controversial part of Vermont’s public records law, which gives police and prosecutors broad authority to seal records long after a criminal investigation closes.
Donovan believes Vermont should replace the state statute that exempts police records from public access with language from the federal Freedom of Information Act that makes accessible police records as long as their release won’t hinder an investigation, for instance, or threaten witnesses.
It’s the same proposal backed by one of the state’s staunchest advocates for greater access to police records, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re trying to solve an issue that’s been debated in the Legislature, been litigated in the courts and reported on extensively in the media, and that is whether or not criminal investigations should be public,” Donovan said in an interview. “What I’m advocating for today is greater disclosure that errs on the side of transparency.”
Making more police records public would boost Vermonters’ trust in law enforcement and protect against abuses by law enforcement, according to Donovan, who is the Chittenden County state’s attorney.
During his 15 years in office, Sorrell has at times fought to ensure criminal investigation records remain off-limits to the public, and he won a Vermont Supreme Court case in April against the Rutland Herald that dismayed some public records advocates. The case involved an investigation into child pornography at the state police academy.
But when it comes to denying access to police records, Sorrell said he is simply defending Vermont law.
“I’ve been following the law as the Legislature has passed it, which I think the attorney general is supposed to do,” said Sorrell. “If we’re talking about proposed changes to the law, that’s something — if the Legislature asked for an opinion on the legality or for policy reasons — I’m happy to engage in that.”
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