Published February 7, 2010 in the Rutland Herald
Search looks at Rutland police
Secret warrant authorizing September probe is due to be unsealed
A Rutland District Court judge has granted a Rutland Herald request to unseal a search warrant executed at the Rutland City Police Department in September - a warrant that police commissioners who oversee the department say they know nothing about.
The contents of the warrant have not been released. Judge Thomas Zonay has provided time for an appeal to be filed to the state Supreme Court by the unidentified agency that executed the warrant at 108 Wales St. sometime between Sept. 21 and Sept. 29.
108 Wales St. also is home to the Rutland County Sheriff's Department. However, Sheriff Stephen Benard said Saturday afternoon that the warrant was not executed in his department.
In his three-page decision, issued last week, Zonay ordered the unsealing of a warrant issued Sept. 21, 2009, for 108 Wales St. in Rutland - home of the city's police department. The warrant was issued in Orleans District Court, and its contents were forwarded to Rutland District Court under seal Sept. 29.
Barring an appeal, Zonay said the contents of the warrant would become public record by noon Tuesday.
"The court concludes that the state has not established the requisite showing of harm necessary to provide a legal basis to have the warrant and related documents remain under seal," Zonay wrote after hearing arguments Thursday in an in-chambers meeting with the agency executing the warrant.
The Herald learned about the possibility of a search warrant last month. The newspaper made a written request to the court, which led to Zonay's closed-door hearing and his decision.
Zonay's decision should shed light on a mystery that has generated interest among city leaders.
Contacted Friday, the mayor, city attorney and three of the five members of its police commission - including the commission's chairman - said they knew nothing of the warrant's existence.
What the city's police chief and other high-ranking officers know about the warrant remains unclear; Chief Anthony Bossi, Capt. Scott Tucker and Lt. Kevin Geno couldn't be reached Friday.
Search warrants normally become a matter of public record after they've been executed and returned to the court that issued them. But in the case of the warrant executed at the city's police department, Judge Walter Morris of Orleans District Court sealed the warrant upon the request of the agency that executed it.
That agency isn't identified in Zonay's decision. However, in previous inquiries to the Vermont State Police, spokeswoman Sgt. Tara Thomas had verified the existence of the warrant. Asked about the warrant Friday, Thomas referred all questions to the state Attorney General's Office.
Calls to the attorney general late Friday afternoon were not returned.
In a footnote, Zonay said he wasn't made aware of the sealed warrant's filing in his court until Jan. 28, adding that "procedures have now been implemented to assure that the presiding judge is notified immediately of the issuance of any sealed warrant returnable to this court."
While law enforcement agencies regularly execute search warrants, it is unusual for a warrant to be executed at a police department, according to Cheryl Hannah, a former prosecutor and a professor at Vermont Law School.
"As a general matter they're issued as part of a criminal investigation," she said. "You probably wouldn't need one normally at a police department. But there could be personal property on a computer or in a desk. To ensure the privacy of whoever the employee is, you would obtain a warrant."
Obtaining a warrant to search is no small matter, either, she said. For a warrant to be issued, a judge must decide that probable cause exists to suspect that evidence needed in a criminal case will be found through the search.
"The standard is it has to be a reasonable search," she said. "It can't be a hunch or speculation or an anonymous tip that leads you to suspect you'll find something. They need some additional proof."
If a criminal investigation is taking place at the department, it hasn't been revealed to those responsible for overseeing the city police.
"I haven't been informed, but I'll look into it and find out," said Police Commission Chairman Robert Ebbinghausen.
Mayor Christopher Louras said he was unaware of the warrant, as was city attorney Andrew Costello, who said the city wasn't involved in litigation related to a warrant served at the department. Costello also said the city wasn't party to the closed-door arguments before Zonay to keep the warrant sealed.
Louras said no personnel have left the department since September, except for those members who have retired.
To read the judge's ruling, go to rutlandherald.com.