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Supreme Court Reverses and Remands Trial Court Decision Concerning the Redaction of Competency Evaluations in Criminal Matters

In State of Vermont v. Anthony Gotavaskas/ State of Vermont v. Grant S. Bercik, 2015 VT 133 (November 13, 2015) the Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision to redact and/or seal portions of court ordered competency evaluations for two criminal defendants.

Issue: The issue presented to the Court concerns the admission of competency evaluations for criminal defendants. Specifically, whether an entire competency report offered by the State must be admitted under 13 V.S.A § 4816(e) or if redacted copies, such as those offered by each individual defendant, were sufficient. The Court reviewed the trial court’s decision to admit only the redacted reports into evidence in consideration of the individual defendant’s privacy interests, as balanced against the public’s interest in having access to such information. The substance of the appeal turned on the meaning of the term “relevant” as used in 13 V.S.A. § 4816(e) which provides “[t[he relevant portion of a psychiatrist’s report shall be admitted into evidence … on the issue of the person’s mental competency to stand trial … .” The Court also explored the issue of standing and whether the State had standing to assert concerns regarding the public’s access to information.

Holding: The Court reversed and remanded the trial court on the basis that it did not make proper findings consistent with V.R.E. 401 when determining the “relevant” portions of the competency evaluation. In doing so the Court noted that it has affirmed other decisions in which redacted evaluations were admitted into evidence because specific findings were made that the redaction was necessary for “good cause” or “exceptional circumstances.” With respect to matters of procedure, the Court held that although no member of the public sought to intervene in this case, there was nevertheless a justiciable controversy regarding the evidentiary rulings in question, one which only the prosecutor had standing to assert, and did properly assert on behalf of the public. The Court further held that the matter was not moot, relying upon the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception.

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