Subpoena for WCAX-TV footage of police shooting quashed; decision unsealed more than a year later

January 17, 2018

CBS-affiliate station WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vermont, was subpoenaed by the Washington County State’s Attorney in Vermont on Jan. 17, 2018, for video footage of a fatal police shooting of a suspect at Montpelier High School the day before. The subpoena was issued as part of an inquest — a closed-door investigative proceeding overseen by the court — after the State’s Attorney learned that the station had a 38-minute video recording, including the shooting of the suspect by the police.

According to court records, a suspected armed robber fled to the grounds of Montpelier High School where police shot and killed him after he refused to surrender his gun. The Washington County State’s Attorney convened an inquest a day after the shooting to determine whether police had acted lawfully after it was found that the suspect was armed with a BB gun.

On Jan. 26, WCAX-TV filed a motion to quash the subpoena, citing the state shield law that protects journalists from compelled disclosure of information and sources. The court granted the station’s motion to quash, making it the first under the state’s media shield law, which was enacted in 2017. The ruling, however, remained sealed as the state’s investigation of the shooting continued.

In April 2018, the inquest was completed and the state decided that it would not bring any charges against the police officers involved in the shooting. WCAX-TV then moved to unseal the trial court’s decision to quash the subpoena. The trial court denied the motion, stating that the order was confidential because it concerned an inquest.

The station appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing the court’s order should be made accessible to the public under the Vermont Rules for Public Access to Court Records. The station also argued that making the decision public was important because of the media shield law precedent.

The Vermont Supreme Court granted the appeal; the trial court’s decision was reversed on July 19, 2019, and its decision to quash the subpoena was unsealed. In that decision, the court noted that the state prosecutors failed to establish that the information in the video recording could not be sought through alternative sources.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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