Vt. newspaper gets warrants unsealed in police child pornography cases

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Randal Smathers, editor, Rutland Herald, Rutland, Vt.

In trying to investigate a case where a Rutland City (VT) police officer was under investigation for allegations of child pornography, we hit layers of secrecy that offended even the judge in the case.

In Vermont, by state Supreme Court ruling, search warrants typically become public once they are processed. Once the suspect knows about them, there is no public benefit to keeping them sealed.

But in this case and the case of an instructor at the state Police Academy also investigated for child pornography, the state Attorney General’s office and state police kept the warrants under seal even after they were executed. Not only were the contents sealed, the very existence of the warrants was secret, so clerks in two courts refused to confirm or deny they even had warrants fitting that description on file.

Were it not for reporter Brent Curtis and managing editor Alan J. Keays having precise knowledge of where warrants ought to be, the public would have no knowledge of these documents or the underlying cases.

Two more cases involving city police looking at pornography on duty came to light as the result of the investigation, one involving suspicion of child pornography. We found that at least two Public Works employees have also been disciplined for downloading pornography onto city computers.

We also found that a separate city officer was being investigated for apparently shooting a shackled, handcuffed prisoner in a city jail cell some two dozen times with talcum-filled paintball rounds.

Details of these other cases remain hidden because they are either in “personnel files” or part of “ongoing investigations,” although we are working to make them public.

It is clear to us from the special handling of these cases that Vermont’s law enforcement community, up to and including the attorney general, are carving out a de facto special exemption to the state’s already-flimsy public records law in keeping secret any details of possible wrongdoing by police in violation of Supreme Court directives and state law.

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