May 31, 2023

Contact: Stephanie Gomory, Communications Director, [email protected], 802-223-6304 x111

BURLINGTON, Vt. – The Burlington City Council yesterday approved settling a civil rights lawsuit involving the 2018 arrests of three brothers, Jeremie, Albin, and Charlie Meli. The ACLU of Vermont filed an amicus brief with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals last year on behalf of one of the brothers, Charlie Meli, asserting his arrest was one of several arrests in recent years in which BPD officers have targeted Black men for engaging in lawful First Amendment activity, and another example of a “troubling practice of police responding to Black men’s speech with handcuffs.”

ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Hillary Rich: “Charlie Meli was arrested for nonviolently expressing his distress at witnessing one of his siblings violently arrested and another lying unconscious on the ground. His case is by no means an outlier: we have seen a disturbing pattern of police using Vermont’s ‘disorderly conduct’ statute to arrest Black men engaged in constitutionally protected speech. Policymakers and judges need to account for the role and impact of racial bias in police practices, including in cases like this one.”

Charlie Meli was arrested in downtown Burlington for “disorderly conduct” after he witnessed the violent arrests of his two brothers, Jeremie and Albin. Despite the fact that Mr. Meli never physically interfered with either brother’s arrest or made any attempt to do so, the City of Burlington claims that Charlie Meli’s “screaming and crying” was “more than sufficient” to justify his arrest. As the ACLU asserted in its amicus filing, however, an arrest for disorderly conduct is lawful only if the conduct is outside the scope of First Amendment protections. In this case, Charlie Meli’s non-violent expression was constitutionally protected.

The ACLU’s brief cites to extensive social science research revealing a “consistent and pernicious association” between Black men and hostility, aggressiveness, violence, and danger. Multiple studies have shown that Black men are more likely to be viewed as angry—and angrier—than white men exhibiting the very same emotions and behaviors, and that people are more likely to incorrectly perceive Black men as presenting a physical threat.

The Burlington Police Department has a long history of punishing Black men engaged in constitutionally protected speech. In 2017, the ACLU sent a letter of concern to BPD, citing multiple examples over a two-year period in which people of color – both adults and children – who swore at or challenged the police were chased down, pepper sprayed, and arrested by police. Although none of these individuals were violent or made a clear threat, each was charged with disorderly conduct. 

As the ACLU wrote at the time, the arrests “demonstrate a troubling pattern of Burlington police unlawfully retaliating in violation of individuals’ First Amendment rights. We bring these incidents to your attention to urge you to ensure that your officers understand the full scope of rights protected under the First Amendment and that they do not act in violation of those rights.”

ACLU of Vermont Legal Director Lia Ernst: “Community members are rightly troubled by BPD’s long history of discriminatory practices. And while those concerns are backed up by BPD’s own stop data, Burlington officials have failed to account for or address systemic racism in the police department. This case is yet another example of the continuing need for state and local leaders to recommit to advancing racial justice and police reform in Vermont.”

The ACLU’s brief is available here

The ACLU’s 2017 letter to BPD is available here.