Oblak v. University of Vermont Police Services, 2019 VT 56

Just a document.
Nothing special about it . . . or is there?

By Elizabeth Kruska

This case is sort of a go-with to In re: Affidavit of Probable Cause, which was published earlier this year.

The basic facts are this: a person called W.R. was investigated for an offense by the UVM Police Department, and was ultimately cited to go to court to face a charge. The police wrote an affidavit, which was forwarded to the State’s Attorney’s Office, and filed with a charging document in the Chittenden Criminal Division. But, the court didn’t find probable cause, so the case didn’t go forward.

A citizen, Jacob Oblak, wanted to see the police report in this particular case. When he tried to get it from the court, he was denied. You can read about it here and here. Recall that we, as the general citizenry, can go to our friendly local courthouse and read lots of things in lots of court files because generally, that information is public (except for stuff that isn’t and for various good reasons).

Undeterred, Mr. Oblak tried to do a Public Records Act request directly to the UVM Police to get the report. That was denied. The police department’s rationale was that since no probable cause was found, and the record was sealed that they couldn’t turn it over.

Mr. Oblak tried using his administrative remedies to get the information and then filed suit. The UVM Police Department filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the civil court. Mr. Oblak appealed, and like his other case, this one gets reversed.

SCOV reviews motions to dismiss de novo, or wholly anew. SCOV will uphold a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted only if there’s no doubt there are no facts or circumstances that would entitle the plaintiff to relief. It’s the civil court equivalent of “this isn’t a thing.” It’s like complaining to the manager at Burger King when they tell you they can’t serve you sushi – there’s no basis for your complaint because Burger King Sushi isn’t a thing. (I apologize to literally everyone if it becomes a thing.)

In this case, the UVM Police did not release the affidavit because they thought it was confidential under court rules. Since the criminal court didn’t find probable cause, the affidavit wasn’t made public. SCOV puts that to one side and looks at the Public Records Act, which is a different statutory animal.

There’s a difference between the Public Access to Court Records Rules and the Public Records Act. SCOV recently released an opinion on that, and made it clear that the PACR is for court records while the PRA is for legislative and executive branch records. They’re two different sets of rules aimed at different kinds of records.

Therefore, the analysis for this record starts with figuring out which act applies to this particular record. Lucky for us, SCOV finds some existing case law on this. A document becomes subject to the court records rule if it becomes a part of a case record and is subject to disclosure as a part of a case (this is really boiling down the example cited; hopefully I’ve done that justice). A document is a public record if it includes “any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business.”

SCOV goes on to describe the document in question here as a police arrest record. Even though it eventually was filed with the court as the supporting affidavit of probable cause in a case that wasn’t prosecuted, SCOV isn’t ready to say the filing magically turns it into a court record in all its forms. It still exists as a police record, subject to the Public Records Act.

Now, SCOV looks at the record in terms of the Public Records Act. The point of the PRA is to provide free and open examination of public records. Some exceptions apply, of course, because there are times when records contain sensitive information that shouldn’t be disclosed.

SCOV decides (and re-states) that records of arrests aren’t records dealing with detection and investigation of crime, but are rather fruits of investigation and detection that’s already happened. Consequently, those records are subject to disclosure.

SCOV also finds relevant the distinction between the two sets of rules at issue; the Public Records Act is a legislatively-created statute. The Public Access to Court Records Rules are court rules, which are enacted by the Judicial Branch. Although they contain statutory protections, they’re not the same as legislation. There isn’t a way for the PACR to make an exception within the PRA.

So, this case gets reversed and sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. I read that to mean the trial court has to analyze Mr. Oblak’s request under the Public Records Act instead of the court rules. That doesn’t mean that the document he seeks will be released (or not), it just means there needs to be further analysis under a different framework.