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Vermont's Supreme Court takes stand against biased stops

The Vermont Supreme Court recently ruled against police overreach. The case of Zullo v. Vermont revolved around a 2014 traffic stop where a state trooper pulled over a young black man driving to visit a friend after work. According to news reports, the officer claimed that he pulled the man over for an obstructed license tab. He then noticed a faint scent of marijuana (which was decriminalized in Vermont) and the presence of a Visine bottle.

The man admitted that he had smoked marijuana three days earlier, but did not appear intoxicated. The officer did not conduct a sobriety test, but deployed his drug detecting dog. The officer then requested access to the vehicle, which the driver denied. The car was subsequently impounded (at the cost of a $150 towing fee) and the man was left to hitchhike home. A later search of the car revealed a pipe and metal grinder with marijuana residue, neither of which were a criminal offense.

Fighting illegal search and seizure

The driver alleged that the state had violated his rights by conducting an illegal search and seizure, which are protected by the Fourth Amendment. He sought monetary damages. The state argued that it did not pay plaintiffs monetary damage and the search was a legal one. The Supreme Court rejected both of the state's claims. The ruling also opens up the possibility of suing the officer for acting in bad faith with ill will or wrongful motive.

Potential far reaching ruling

Not only does the case strengthen rights to privacy in Vermont, it could be a bellwether as more and more states like Massachusetts that have legalized marijuana. It also speaks to the issue of illegal profiling by law enforcement - covered license tabs are not illegal in Vermont and thus not a reason for pulling as driver over. Moreover, the courts dismissed the faint marijuana odor premise and the driver's admission of smoking three days prior as justification for the search.

The officer has since been fired from his job after repeated complaints about profiling surfaced. There are many other states that wrestle with officers who make illegal stops, so the Vermont Supreme Court could lead the way in curbing illegal stops as well as search and seizures. To make this happen, it will also be necessary to count on the legal guidance of experienced criminal defense attorneys. They can ensure that a defendant's Fourth Amendment and other legal rights are protected.

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