Vermont v. Scales

In 2017, defendant Robert Scales was riding as a passenger in the back seat of a car pulled over for speeding. The officer was suspicious of criminal activity because he knew that the road was a regular drug- trafficking route between New York and Burlington, Vermont. The car had New York license plates, and the occupants said they were headed to Burlington. The officer detected a faint odor of burnt marijuana and asked who had been smoking. The front-seat passenger said he had smoked marijuana earlier in the day, but not in the car. The officer then asked for consent to search the car for illegal drugs. The officer explained that the occupants could deny consent, in which case he would walk around the car with his drug- detection dog. He described his dog as an “aggressive alert dog” that might scratch the car and damage it during the search. He informed them that he could also request a search warrant, which the court might or might not grant. The driver agreed to allow the search and signed a written consent form; the other occupants, including defendant, neither objected to the search nor gave affirmative consent. The occupants got out of the car prior to the search. The officer asked whether there was anything in the car that anyone did not want searched, and the occupants did not identify anything. The officer then searched the car, including a bag in the trunk. In the bag, the officer found white powder wrapped in a bag and several wax bundles, which he believed to be cocaine and heroin. The bag also contained a parking ticket associated with the driver, who was the only woman in the car, and female clothing. All three occupants denied that the items were theirs. They were all arrested and charged with possession of heroin and cocaine and heroin trafficking. At some point after arrest, a search warrant was obtained for the containers in the vehicle. Defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence found during the stop of the car, and he appealed denial of his motion to dismiss for lack of a prima facie case. Based on the evidence actually presented, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendant that there was insufficient evidence to show he had any connection with the drugs except for his presence in the car. "If anything, the evidence presented at the hearing—which included testimony that the bag also contained female clothing and a parking ticket associated with the driver—tended to show that the bag and its contents did not belong to defendant. The permissive inference alone, or taken together with the court’s findings, were insufficient to establish guilt or an element of the offense." View "Vermont v. Scales" on Justia Law