Judge rejects bid to seal motion request

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BURLINGTON — Vermont's top federal judge has rejected efforts by a defense lawyer to try to secretly spring a dangerous Southern Vermont felon from prison while he awaits trial.

"The public has a strong interest in understanding the reasons why the court detains some defendants and releases others on conditions," Chief U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford said in rejecting the defense motion for sealing public records.

The criminal case centers on three-time convicted felon Joshua R. Stratton, 34, of Brattleboro unlawfully possessing nine firearms in Putney on June 30, court records show. He has pleaded not guilty to the felony charge.

Vermont State Police said they found Stratton with four rifles, three shotguns and two handguns when summoned for reports of gunshots heard near Sand Hill and Kimball roads.

Stratton has three felony convictions, including one for felony assault with a weapon, Trooper John Waitekus said in a court affidavit. A witness, Sherrie A. Stratton, 28, reported "shooting is his therapy" when her husband was found at the gravel pit, the veteran trooper wrote.

A 2-year-old girl was found with no ear protection in the backseat of a nearby 2008 Lexus, Waitekus said. Stratton's breath test showed 0.034 percent alcohol, the trooper wrote.

Crawford's ruling is expected to slow a recent trend of similar motions being filed under seal, or heavily redacted with basic information that would be routinely presented during federal court arguments before a judge in public.

Crawford initially ordered Stratton jailed Aug. 30 pending trial due to his criminal history, his past incidents of violence and his previous alcohol or substance abuse, records show.

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Assistant Federal Public Defender Steven L. Barth subsequently filed under seal on Oct. 29 both a motion to reconsider the detention order and to also hide that motion. Barth blacked out 24 straight lines and also various sections of eight other lines over the three-page request.

Crawford however now has ruled there was no justification for Barth to hide his arguments.

The sealed defense motion, when made public by Crawford, showed much of Barth's secretive argument centered on trying to get his client into Valley Vista in Bradford for an intensive impatient substance abuse treatment program. Barth also mentions Stratton wants to help his wife take care of their young child once done at Valley Vista.

Barth's sealed motion did mention several failed efforts by Stratton at drug rehabilitation, including previous admissions at Valley Vista two years ago and the Brattleboro Retreat last year. It also mentions Stratton's past use of crack cocaine, heroin and being an IV drug user, records show.

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"Defendant goes too far in seeking to seal the entire motion," Crawford said in rejecting the request.

"A review of the unredacted motion for reconsideration reveals little which justifies wholesale sealing and redaction. Defendant describes his history of drug use and his efforts at rehabilitation," he wrote.

Crawford said while he can appreciate the claims of privacy by the defendant about his past, and for his young daughter, the fact was Stratton himself was making them public. "But in placing these matters before the court, defendant necessarily gives up a large measure of privacy because his criminal prosecution is a public proceeding," the judge ruled.

"In this case, defendant's privacy interest is outweighed by the public's right to access judicial documents. The discussion of defendant's history of drug use and treatment are important factors in understanding his detention and request for reconsideration," he declared.

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"There is no way for the court to consider and rule on these matters publicly without addressing them openly. There is no way for the public to understand the court's original decision and any decision on reconsideration without reviewing the factual basis for these rulings," Crawford wrote in the three-page ruling.

"The court denies the motion to seal because its scope is too broad. The public has a right to know the basis on which a criminal defendant seeks pre-trial release," he said.

Crawford left the door open that some consideration could be given if there were specific documents needed to be sealed, but that it would have to be a narrow remedy.

The U.S. Probation Office and the U. S. Attorney's Office both opposed the motion

Prosecutors had maintained from the beginning that there were no known conditions that could protect the community if Stratton was released.

"In addition, over the last eighteen months, law enforcement has had multiple reports and interactions with Stratton indicating he is likely involved in trafficking and abusing narcotics," a motion to detain Stratton noted.

"At the time the firearms were seized from Stratton, he was under the influence of alcohol," the motion said. "The nine firearms were on the ground, near open and closed alcohol containers."

The guns involved were: a .44 caliber Ruger revolver, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a Ruger .556 caliber AR-style rifle, a Marlin .35 caliber rifle, a Ruger .22 rifle, a Remington 30-06 rifle, a Harrington and Richards 16 gauge shotgun, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun and a Mavi 20 gauge shotgun.


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