Something is Way Out of Whack

by Steven Pappas, publisher and editor of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald

MONTPELIER – Isabel Jennifer Seward, a teenage driver, was fined $220 for her part in a double-fatal vehicle crash that killed an elderly Ferrisburgh couple last fall in Charlotte.   

Were it not for a freelance journalist, we never would have known where to place our outrage.

Chet and Connie Hawkins died in the head-on crash, after Seward, who was 16 at the time, crossed the double yellow-line, striking them.

Seward received a civil traffic ticket for an offense listed as “driving on roadways laned for traffic.” She pleaded no contest to the civil traffic ticket and was assessed $220 by the Vermont Judicial Bureau. Her mother paid the fine.

Sure, you can be angry a fine was issued in light of the death of two individuals. Or you can be angry about the fact many efforts were made to conceal Seward’s identity from the public eye.

The fine was only made public after reporter Michael Donoghue made a public records request, which Vermont State Police ignored for more than a month. Vermont’s records law requires a prompt response — but also allows up to 10 days for delays in special cases.

When State Police finally filed a response, it had redacted several parts of the civil ticket — including Seward’s name and hometown, Atlanta, Georgia.

And yet, Seward’s fate started with the State Police.

They issued a news release the day of the crash, withholding Seward’s identity. Two days later, the VSP eventually disclosed it. (And much later, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles provided Seward’s name, hometown and complete crash details in the public accident report filed by State Police.)

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George was upset with Vermont State Police for releasing Seward’s name as the driver in 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 could file criminal charges in adult court as well, if warranted. Vermont State Police countered that they had relied on the department’s transparency policy and several legal opinions, the Vermont Constitution, the Vermont Public Records Law and the rules of the Vermont Judiciary — all of them siding with transparency for public records.

Here’s the wrinkle: Since last July, state attorneys, including George, were directed to send cases involving juveniles initially to family court, except for the most serious crimes. Once the case is at family court, the state’s attorney is free to move it to adult criminal court, but needs to indicate the reason for the move is “in the interest of justice.” Adult proceedings are public.

The day after Seward’s name was released by Vermont State Police, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling directed a gag order on all State Police, preventing them from providing any news releases with names of juveniles, including if they are killed or injured. As written, the order also appears to restrict public release about child abductions, AMBER Alerts, missing skiers, overdue hunters and other cases involving children. Schirling’s gag order remains in effect today.

However, the Vermont Judiciary maintains Seward’s name and information are public. And Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan has stated that he sides with public transparency in the Seward case.

State Police noted Seward might face legal action in Vermont Family Court as a juvenile, which would be confidential. Vermont Family Court has few options in juvenile cases. Vermont closed its juvenile jail last year. A judge could impose counseling or community service, according to lawyers and others familiar with family court proceedings. The Vermont Department for Children and Families would be expected to monitor a juvenile long distance for the court.

We concur with the attorney general that you must come down on the side of transparency when it comes to releasing names of teenagers involved in fatal crashes. Also, they need to be public for serious crimes or providing names of children that have been abducted or lost. Period.

If they are given a license, and the responsibility to drive, minors deserve the rights and responsibilities that come from their actions — especially if those actions lead to death.

Earlier this week, an 18-year-old man fired off a round at the University Mall in South Burlington. His alleged actions caused injury. More than likely, he will face a consequence far more severe than a fine, and his name has been plastered all over the news for two days now.

What we hope is four-fold:
We hope that the Seward case will be held up as a transparency issue, especially for cases involving minors and serious crimes (especially with death resulting). We hope Schirling’s gag order will be called out and lifted for being short-sighted. We hope when minors commit serious crimes, they are held responsible. And we hope — beyond all else — that no one’s life is reduced to $110.

[Editor’s note: This editorial was forwarded to us from Vermont Press Association president Lisa Loomis. The Vermont Legislature is looking to have police, courts, the Department of Motor Vehicles and others withhold the names of anybody involved in fatal crashes, crimes and other police actions going up to possibly age 22. The VPA is contesting the action.]