Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan has come down on the side of transparency when it comes to releasing names of teenagers involved in fatal or serious crashes or providing names of children that have been abducted or lost.
Donovan’s legal opinion comes three months after Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling suspended a longstanding Vermont State Police transparency policy. The document had said names of teens are public record when it comes to motor vehicles crashes, are part of investigations, including for AMBER Alerts abductions, or are missing/overdue youths while hunting, skiing or other cases.
Donovan said Monday, Dec. 7, that nothing had been reduced to writing when his office notified Rosemary Gretkowski, the lawyer for the Public Safety Department, a few weeks ago the outcome of the legal research.
He said Monday the information was clearly public record, though he did add that once juvenile cases begin in Family Court those details must be withheld, but the records are public until that time.
When told that Schirling reported at Gov. Phil Scott’s news conference Friday that the public safety department was still waiting for Donovan to weigh in, Vermont’s top prosecutor said he would call Schirling directly with the legal ruling.
Schirling asked for the legal opinion after he ordered a temporary suspension of part of the state police transparency policy following a head-on crash in Charlotte that killed a well-known elderly Ferrisburgh couple on Sept. 8.
Isabel Jennifer Seward, 16, of Atlanta, was driving a truck in one of two northbound lanes on U.S. 7 when she crossed the double yellow-line, continued north and eventually struck a southbound car near Church Hill Road, state police said. Chester Hawkins, 73, longtime municipal official, including town clerk, tried taking evasive action, but he and his wife, Connie, 72, died from the grinding crash, state police said.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, in an email, was upset with Vermont State Police for releasing Seward’s name as the driver causing the fatal crash. George did not want the name public if there was any chance Seward might undergo confidential proceedings in Vermont Family Court for her driving.
George also could file criminal charges in adult court if warranted.
Seward’s name was still public record through the Vermont Motor Vehicle Department, which serves as the public repository for all crash records. The crash report shows that a driver behind Seward captured it on his dashboard video camera.
Schirling’s gag order also extends to civil traffic tickets, which his predecessor Thomas Anderson and the Vermont Judiciary have said are public records. Anderson, a former U.S. Attorney for Vermont, had issued a legal opinion three years ago saying tickets are public record even for teenagers.
State police had initially withheld Seward’s name at the request of George’s office. Members of the public asked for the driver’s name citing the Vermont Constitution, the Vermont Public Records Law, the Department of Motor Vehicles rules, and state police’s own transparency policy.
Two days after the crash, state police released Seward’s name, but the following night, Schirling ordered future state police press releases refrain from using names of any teens, including drivers, those hurt in crashes, missing children and other cases, unless they were ordered into adult court for criminal charges.
Donovan’s disclosure upholds the Vermont State Police decision in September that it was on legal ground when it released the name of the 16-year-old that they said caused the double fatal crash in Charlotte.
During Scott’s press conference last Friday, the governor was asked if Donovan’s office was short on lawyers because Schirling’s request for an expedited legal opinion had gone unanswered for 11 weeks.
Were other state departments or agencies waiting legal opinions or work, Scott was asked.
The governor indicated he was unaware of any shortage, but said administration secretary Suzanne Young might know more. Young said there had been some effort to fill a few vacancies while a state hiring freeze was still in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not have specific numbers.
Human resources commissioner Beth Fastiggi, on behalf of Young, reported Monday there are currently four vacant attorney positions at the Attorney General’s office. Donovan’s office had asked for a waiver to be able to recruit and hire three lawyers.
Fastiggi said the three waiver requests were approved. The waiver requests cited work related to COVID-19 pandemic as a need to fill the vacancies, she said.
Donovan has not requested any new permanent positions associated with COVID-19 pandemic, the commissioner said.