Zullo v. Vermont challenges police authority to stop, seize and search a vehicle without suspicion of a crime.
Thanks to police department data, we know that Black and Latino drivers in Vermont are stopped and searched at much higher rates than white drivers. This is true even though searches of white drivers are more likely to yield contraband.
The ACLU of Vermont is fighting this practice in court. In 2018, the Vermont Supreme Court will hear the case of Greg Zullo, an African American Vermonter who was pulled over for allegedly having a small amount of snow covering the registration sticker on his license plate (something that was not illegal at the time of the stop).
The Vermont State Trooper, citing a smell of burnt marijuana, demanded to search the car. When Mr. Zullo refused, the trooper had the car towed to the police barracks to have it searched there, and Mr. Zullo was forced to walk several miles in the snow without a coat and pay a $150 fee to retrieve it. The search of the car revealed nothing illegal.
The ACLU's briefing to the Vermont Supreme Court focuses on two arguments. First, that the Vermont Constitution does not allow officers to rely on a mistaken interpretation of the law to justify a vehicle stop. Second, the ACLU argues that exit orders, vehicle seizures, and searches should only be permissible if the police have suspicion of a criminal act, not, as in this case, a civil infraction.
Justice for All, Migrant Justice, Peace and Justice Center, The Root Social Justice Center, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Steffen Gillom, Chair of the Windham County NAACP Organizing Committee and Tabitha Pohl-Moore, President of the Rutland Area NAACP Branch, joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) in filing a "friend of the court" brief in support of Mr. Zullo, citing the widespread racial disparities in Vermont police stop data. The groups contend that an expansion in police discretion in this area would make it easier for police to stop and search drivers for pretextual reasons, further infringing on the civil rights of people of color in Vermont.
Vermont's Office of the Defender General submitted separate briefing in support of Mr. Zullo.
The Vermont Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in favor of ACLU client Gregory Zullo in January 2019. The Court ruled that the stop of Mr. Zullo and seizure of his vehicle violated Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution, and that the state is not immune from liability for those violations. The Court remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.
In June 2019, ACLU of Vermont client Gregory Zullo settled his racial profiling lawsuit against the State of Vermont.. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the State acknowledged that the 2014 stop and seizure of Mr. Zullo were unreasonable and will pay Mr. Zullo $50,000 plus mediation costs to resolve the case.