Federal Judge Allows ACLU Racial Profiling Case Against Bennington PD to Go Forward

ACLU of Vermont lawsuit consistent with data showing widespread discrimination by Vermont law enforcement


May 19, 2017

MONTPELIER—United States District Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled this week that an ACLU of Vermont civil rights lawsuit alleging racial profiling and unreasonable search and seizure will go forward against two former Bennington police officers and the Town of Bennington.

Rejecting the defendants’ request to dismiss the case, the court ruled that the complaint sufficiently alleged that the officers discriminated against Mr. Alexander on the basis of his race and that Bennington maintained a policy or custom of unconstitutionally prolonging traffic stops without justification. The case will now move into discovery on those claims. The court dismissed other claims, including ruling that, although the officers violated Mr. Alexander’s Fourth Amendment rights, they were shielded from liability by qualified immunity.

ACLU-VT staff attorney Lia Ernst: “We brought this lawsuit as part of a broader fight against biased policing in Vermont. The case will continue, but this work must also continue in the State House and in the police departments themselves. At a time when the Trump administration is retreating from long overdue police reforms, it’s critical for states and localities to rein in these unconstitutional and discriminatory practices.”

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette insists that racial profiling doesn’t happen in his department—but, said Ernst, “the data tell a different story.” A recent study of data from 29 Vermont law enforcement agencies showed that Bennington police stop black drivers far out of proportion to their share of the driving population and are five times more likely to search black drivers than white drivers—but that searches of black drivers are less likely to result in an arrest. This study also showed that Bennington’s discrepancies are among the worst in the state.

In July 2013, Shamel Alexander was riding in a taxi when it was stopped on a pretext by Bennington Police. At the time, an off-duty detective told another officer that the passenger was an African-American male whom he did not know and that it “would probably be a good stop if [he] could find him doing something wrong.” The reason police ultimately offered for the stop was an equipment violation, but it quickly turned into an investigation of Mr. Alexander—despite a lack of reasonable suspicion to believe he was committing any crime.

Mr. Alexander was arrested for a drug offense, but his subsequent conviction was unanimously overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court, which held that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Represented by the ACLU of Vermont and cooperating attorney David Williams of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams, Mr. Alexander filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the officers profiled him on the basis of his race and unconstitutionally expanded a traffic stop into a drug investigation absent reasonable suspicion to believe he was engaged in illegal activity.

“A person’s race does not provide grounds to initiate a criminal investigation,” said David Williams. “We are pleased that Mr. Alexander will be able to pursue these claims and vindicate his constitutional rights. And we hope that this case will finally make Bennington take its problem with racial profiling seriously.”

Last week, in another ACLU lawsuit challenging Vermont police practices, Judge Helen Toor dismissed the claims of Greg Zullo, an African-American man who was stopped by state troopers in Rutland in 2014. Police based the stop on the fact that Zullo had snow on his license plate. In that case, the court ruled that under current Vermont law, the smell of marijuana can provide probable cause for police to search a vehicle, notwithstanding the fact that Vermont has already decriminalized simple possession. The ACLU is considering a possible appeal of that decision.

Earlier this year, Burlington police officer Christopher Lopez resigned after claiming falsely that he smelled marijuana to justify a vehicle search that led to an arrest.