Court cites study showing disproportionate stops and searches of Black motorists in allowing civil rights suit to proceed
MONTPELIER—United States District Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled today that a civil rights lawsuit brought by ACLU of Vermont client Shamel Alexander will go forward against Bennington police chief Paul Doucette and the Town of Bennington. In an earlier order, the Court had allowed Mr. Alexander’s racial profiling claim against the officers involved to proceed; today’s ruling means that his claim that racial profiling is endemic in Bennington policing will likewise go forward.
Rejecting the defendants’ second motion to dismiss, the court ruled that based on facts presented it was reasonable to infer that “had Bennington appropriately trained or supervised its police officers with respect to racial disparities in stops and searches, Alexander would not have been stopped or searched and his equal protection rights would not have been violated.”
ACLU-VT staff attorney Lia Ernst: “The court recognized that the unconstitutional search leading to Mr. Alexander’s arrest can’t be brushed aside as an outlier or anomaly. The data show department-wide, systemic racial bias in Bennington’s policing—municipal leaders shrugging their shoulders, issuing blanket denials, and blaming ‘bad apples’ is not going to cut it anymore. It is past time for Bennington to take its racial profiling problem seriously.”
The court’s decision cited a recent study showing 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—while searches of Black drivers are less likely to uncover an arrestable offense. The study showed that these racial disparities were not isolated to a few officers, but rather were observable in data for 22 of 24 officers in the Bennington PD.
In July 2013, Shamel Alexander was riding in a taxi when it was stopped on a pretext by Bennington Police. 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.
Mr. Alexander is represented by the ACLU of Vermont and cooperating attorney David Williams of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams. Following today’s decision, the case will move into discovery, allowing the ACLU to expand its investigation of unconstitutional practices by the Bennington police department.