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Vermont ACLU sues for access to Essex County Sheriff's records on immigration communications

A man in glasses and a police uniform inside a car.
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public File
The ACLU of Vermont said it filed the records request after Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby, seen here inside his car in 2020, indicated his department would contact immigration authorities despite a state policy prohibiting police from taking actions based on immigration status.

A local law enforcement agency suspected of violating Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy is refusing to provide copies of records related to communications with federal immigration officials, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with the Community News Service in December, Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby expressed frustration with proposed updates to the Fair and Impartial Policing Policy — which have since been enacted — and indicated that his department has contacted immigration authorities when they encounter individuals suspected of being in the country without authorization.

Lia Ernst, legal director at the ACLU of Vermont, told Vermont Public Tuesday that Colby’s remarks suggest the Essex County Sheriff’s Department is in violation of a statewide policy that seeks to prevent collaboration between state and local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies.

“The comments … suggest that just as a matter of course, the agency, if they had any suspicion that someone was here without authorization, would contact federal immigration authorities,” Ernst said.

The ACLU decided to investigate its suspicions by filing a public records request that sought all communications between the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and federal immigration agents.

The principle at stake here … is a very critical component of ensuring that the Public Records Act fulfills its mandate of providing for free and open examination of records so that the people can have an account what their government is doing in their name."
Lia Ernst, ACLU of Vermont

Ernst said the department informed her in early April that the records were available for inspection in person. But the department denied the ACLU’s request to receive copies of the records electronically.

Ernst said the department’s insistence on in-person inspection of records violates a key tenet of public records law.

“The principle at stake here … is a very critical component of ensuring that the Public Records Act fulfills its mandate of providing for free and open examination of records so that the people can have an account what their government is doing in their name,” she said.

For people who can’t leave work during business hours, Ernst said, the ability to access public records electronically might be the only way they can exercise their rights under the law. And she said in-person records inspections can be especially problematic for victims of police misconduct.

“If an individual believes they had been subjected to misconduct at the hands of agents of a particular agency, you could certainly understand why they would not wish to go in and review the records of that misconduct in the very agency that they are accusing of committing it,” Ernst said.

Colby said Tuesday he was unable to comment on the pending lawsuit, and told Vermont Public that he’s retained counsel for the case.

Ernst said the records are critical to determining whether the department is potentially aiding in the detention and deportation of migrant farmworkers and other Vermonters living in the state without authorization.

“It serves no good interest for local law enforcement to be engaging in immigration enforcement when we know that that drives communities underground, it chills people being willing to make reports to the police or serve as witnesses to the police,” she said. “And ultimately, Vermonters have expressed loudly and clearly that they do not want their local law enforcement to be part of the immigration enforcement apparatus.”

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