|Time is money|
Doyle v. Burlington Police Dept., 2019 VT 66
By Jacob Oblak
A citizen named Reed Doyle witnesses an incident in a public park involving Burlington Police officers, and he becomes concerned about the officers’ use of force. So Mr. Doyle does two things. He makes a citizen complaint to the police directly, and he asks to view the police’s body camera footage of the incident.
The police chief tells Mr. Doyle his request is going to take hours upon hours of staff time to make sure the police have redacted all the stuff that other laws require them to redact, so the police will be charging Mr. Doyle for their time. It’ll be hundreds of dollars. The police chief requires a deposit before he’ll begin making the redacted copy of the video. The police chief’s demand is based on the public records act, which says a department can charge someone for their time “associated with a request for a copy of a public record.”
Mr. Doyle declines to pay and sues the police, alleging they have effectively denied him his request to “inspect” the video by requiring him to pay hundreds of dollars. Everybody agrees Mr. Doyle’s request forced the police to make a redacted copy, and everybody agrees Mr. Doyle doesn’t want to keep the copy, only to inspect it.
So the crucial focus, the majority says, is what was requested, not what the department had to produce. Besides, the whole point of the public records act is to enable concerned citizens like Mr. Doyle to oversee the government’s actions, so where there is any ambiguity in the law, SCOV will usually come out in favor of making public oversight of government easier, not harder. Lastly, the majority points out that public policy decisions are for the Legislature, not the Court. The Court only interprets the law.
This is kind of like when I go to the bar and there’s a sign that says “free samples.” After 35 samples, the bartender is going to try to charge me full freight for a beer despite the very clear “free samples” sign above the door. Or maybe it’s not like that at all. We’ll have a conversation about false advertising at watering holes some other time.
The outcome: the police department can’t charge Mr. Doyle for their time creating the redacted copy of the video.