MONTPELIER — Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling has overruled a Vermont State Police transparency policy and is now blocking state troopers from releasing names of juveniles in any kind of cases — including drivers accused of causing serious car crashes and in instances where young people are the victims of homicides, fatal or serious vehicle wrecks, drownings and other incidents.
The directive from Schirling came one day after the Vermont State Police followed its own longstanding policy to identify a 16-year-old driver from Atlanta, Ga., whom troopers say crossed the center line on U.S. 7 in Charlotte and killed an elderly Ferrisburgh couple last week.
"At the direction of the Commissioner, please put a temporary hold on releasing any personal identifying information on juveniles," State Police Director Col. Matthew Birmingham wrote in an email to troopers at 9:53 p.m. last Friday.
"The only exception to this temporary hold is if a juvenile has been charged with a crime as an adult," Birmingham's message continued.
By Thursday, Schirling, in a phone interview, appeared to modify his directive slightly. When asked about his temporary order blocking the release of cases involving AMBER Alerts, abductions, or lost children, Schirling said he would make incidents involving the safety of children an exception to the new directive.
He said the legislature may need to weigh in, but that is not likely to happen until next year. The legislators are still holding virtual sessions, but trying to wrap up the marathon session.
As of Thursday, it was unclear if the teen driver, Isabel Jennifer Seward, would face any charges in adult or family court related to the double fatal crash. Seward was believed to be visiting Vermont relatives and was listed as a student at Paideia High School, a private institution, where she plays basketball and volleyball, records show.
Chester Hawkins, 73, the retired Ferrisburgh town clerk, and his wife, Connie Hawkins, 72, died in the crash on U.S. 7 near Church Hill Road in Charlotte shortly after 4 p.m. Sept. 11. All three people were wearing their seat belts, police said.
Seward was northbound on U.S. 7, which has two lanes, when her car crossed the center line and struck the car carrying the couple head-on near the breakdown lane of the one southbound lane, police said. Seward was driving a Vermont-registered 2009 Toyota Tacoma.
Schirling said he became aware last Friday of potential conflicting statutory and policy guidance related to the release of juvenile information.
He said lawyers within the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Department for Children and Families and the Vermont Attorney General's Office are being asked to weigh in. Schirling said his department's own legal counsel, Rosemary Gretkowski, also is weighing in.
Birmingham's message to state troopers stated his department was reaching out to Attorney General T.J. Donovan for a legal ruling. Birmingham wrote that a "a swift and full review" of the matter was being requested. "Until that is complete this temporary hold is in effect," Birmingham wrote.
State Rep. Martin Lalonde, D-South Burlington, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said when the juvenile laws were changed this year, it focused on Family Court proceedings and confidentiality at hearings. The Judiciary Committee never addressed public records such as accident reports and civil traffic tickets, he said, and that would not be part of the review by his committee, said Lalonde, a lawyer.
The Vermont Motor Vehicles Department plans to continue to release names of all involved parties, no matter their age, through public crash reports, Tony Facos, the head of enforcement, said Thursday.
"Our policy has not changed," said Facos, a former Montpelier police chief. He said the DMV had a full legal review conducted, and the issue discussed at length last week. Transparency will remain, he said.
The same also goes for civil traffic tickets that are issued to teen drivers and mentioned in reports, he said.
Three years ago, then-Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, who previously served Vermont as U.S. attorney, did his own legal research on the question of identifying juvenile drivers through public records. Anderson's review followed shortly after the department issued a new public transparency policy, which had been endorsed by the office of Gov. Phil Scott. Anderson came down on the side of the public's right to know.
The issue in this case boils down to whether names of licensed drivers who crash on public roads paid for by taxpayers that result in publicly funded police, fire and rescue squads responding are public information.
While juvenile court proceedings are considered confidential, 16-year-olds are eligible to appear in adult criminal court, but a new law limits the kinds of cases teens can go to adult court.
The legislature also has moved to allow offenders up to age 22 years-old to be treated as youthful offenders with confidential court hearings.
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George told the media in an email last week that she would not release the driver's name from the Charlotte crash. George did say if she filed charges against the teen, she planned to bring them in Vermont Family Court, where all proceedings are confidential.
State Police had granted a request by George's office to withheld the name of the driver initially. Two days later state police agreed to release Seward's name after various appeals from the public noting the name is public under the Vermont Constitution, the Vermont Public Records Law, the rules of the Vermont DMV and the current Vermont State Police public information policy.
The same issued surfaced in another crash involving a teen driver in May 2019, killing a schoolmate and injuring another in Windham County. The driver's name was withheld for 17 days, but state police released it and further updated its transparency policy.