6/6/2018Vermont Man Brings Racial Traffic Stop Complaint To High Court
Black motorist tells Vermont Supreme Court that police violated his rights by impounding car even though he committed no crime.
A Vermont man who believes police pulled him over for driving while black argued his case before the state Supreme Court last week. Gregory W. Zullo was stopped, searched and his car seized because there was a tiny amount of snow on the bumper in front of the license plate. All of the plate's letters and numbers were clearly visible, but snow, the trooper insisted, blocked the registration sticker.
"These are textbook unreasonable seizures," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lia Ernst told the justices. "Now the state asks this court to condone everything that then-Trooper Lewis Hatch did to Mr. Zullo that day, and to invite all Vermont law enforcement officers to do the same to other innocent motorists."
Zullo had been driving his mom's 2005 Pontiac Sunfire in Wallingford on March 6, 2014, when he caught the attention of a Vermont state trooper Lewis Hatch. Zullo had been on his way to a friend's house after work when he saw Trooper Lewis order him to pull over. Zullo was not speeding, and the car was properly registered. From the side of the road, the trooper saw a bottle of Visine and an air freshener in the car, so he concluded that the car must contain marijuana.
When Zullo refused to consent to a search, the trooper obtained a warrant and had the car impounded so it could be examined at the station. Vermont in 2013 decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and none was found in the vehicle. After being detained for an hour, Zullo was left stranded on the side of the road, as the officer would not let him retrieve his wallet and phone from the car. He had to walk eight miles back home in the 23 degree weather.
The high court justices noted the officer was mistaken about the law, as the statute in effect in 2014 did not require the registration sticker to be visible. The question turned to whether being wrong about the law invalidated the stop itself.
"If an officer guesses wrong about something we haven't decided clearly enough, or the legislature hasn't given clear enough guidance on, [is it right] that the officer is then penalized," Justice Karen R. Carroll said.
Hatch is no longer a Vermont state trooper. The high court accepted the case and is expected to issue a ruling by the end of the term.