Decision raises ante in public information request
Burlington, Vermont - June 27, 2011
A battle is brewing in the courts over public access to police paperwork. Two superior court judges denied the state's request to keep information related to a missing couple from Essex under wraps.
For more than two weeks, WCAX-TV and other media have been trying to figure out what may have happened to Bill and Lorraine Currier. Gaining access to search warrants and police paperwork may answer a lot of questions -- like why police keep saying the public is not at risk, whether of not they are questioning third parties, what specifically they were looking for inside the Currier's home and on their computer, and does the evidence in the recovered car point to foul play. But something in those documents is so sensitive, that prosecutors are willing to take this fight to court.
"I see no reason releasing information that arguably could end up in an alleged perpetrator's hands," said Chittenden County State's Attorney, T.J. Donovan.
Donovan say that the public is not entitled to see search warrants and police affidavits related to the mysterious disappearance of the Curriers, claiming it could compromise the ongoing police investigation. "I get the need for transparency. I understand that the public has a right to know, but I don't think it's an absolute right. I think that the police are working hard on this --let them do their job," Donovan said.
But the police are saying very little about the Essex couple who vanished from their home on June 8. The records request was initiated by the Burlington Free Press and two superior court judges ruled the public should have access to the information.
"The standard for trying to seal a search warrant -- it's a pretty high standard," said Matt Byrne, an attorney with Gravel and Shea, a Burlington law firm instrumental in establishing a common law right to access to search warrants.
It was 2001 and the region was in shock following the brutal murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop. The couple was killed by two Vermont teens. Rumors were swirling. The public and the media -- including Channel 3 -- wanted answers from sealed court documents.
The court sided with the media, ruling that the "the public has a presumptive right of access to such materials absent an overriding demonstration of harm to public or private interest."
Byrne says this Supreme Court decision laid the legal groundwork for the Currier case. He says the prosecutor's argument fell short. "They haven't shown that these documents should be confidential. They haven't made a sufficient showing to a judge that whatever reason their offering the judge is strong enough to outweigh the very strong public interest in knowing about these sorts of cases," he said.
Prosecutors are now appealing the lower court's decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. That ruling could take several weeks. In the meantime, the state has also filed a motion to stay the seal. If the state wins, the search warrants and related documents could remain off limits for as long as the court deems appropriate.