Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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Defendant Ellie May Morse was charged with simple assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest as a result of her encounter with law enforcement officers outside a motel in Bennington in August 2014. Police were called when one of defendant's teenaged sons got into an argument with the manager of the motel. As the first two officers approached the Fife and Drum, defendant, who had been outside smoking a cigarette, stepped in front of them to block them from going into the motel. Defendant then began moving toward the first pair of officers, who had their backs turned to her. As one of the second two officers tried to move past her, she raised her arm, and the officer reacted by grabbing her arm, spinning her around, and attempting to handcuff her. Defendant struggled and stiffened her arms, and her cigarette came in contact with the officer’s left forearm. Defendant was then placed under arrest. Defendant was convicted by jury of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and acquitted of simple assault. After the verdict, defendant challenged her convictions through motions for a new trial and judgment of acquittal, alleging the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions. Defendant appealed the denial of those motions. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Morse" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jeffrey Ray appealed the twenty years to life sentence he received for second-degree murder, which was imposed after a contested sentencing hearing following a plea agreement reducing the charge from first-degree murder. On appeal, he argued the sentencing court erred in finding the victim, Richard Vreeland, to be “particularly vulnerable” based solely on his being unarmed and within shooting range of defendant. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. View "Vermont v. Ray" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of an inquest convened to investigate an incident in which police fatally shot a suspected bank robber after a standoff near Montpelier High School in Vermont. The day after the shooting, the State applied to open the inquest. The same day, the State served a subpoena on WCAX-TV, a station of appellant Gray Television, Inc., requiring that the station produce all of its unedited video recordings of the incident. Appellant moved to quash the subpoena, citing 12 V.S.A. 1615, a statute enacted in 2017 that protected journalists from compelled disclosure of information. At the beginning of the court’s hearing on the motion, the State requested that the proceedings be closed, arguing that inquests were secret, investigatory proceedings. The trial court agreed and excluded the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion. On February 16, 2018, following the hearing, the court issued a written decision granting the motion to quash. This was the first court decision interpreting section 1615 since its enactment. On its own initiative, and in light of its ruling excluding the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion, the trial court noted, “[i]nasmuch as this is an ongoing inquest this decision shall remain under seal, as shall the entire inquest file, and shall not be available to the public unless and until the inquest has concluded with indictments or informations.” The pivotal question presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this case was whether a trial-court order granting a motion to quash a subpoena issued in the context of an inquest was categorically exempt from public disclosure. The Supreme Court held the order was a public record presumptively subject to disclosure under the Rules for Public Access to Court Records, and concluded that there was no basis for sealing the record in this case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s denial of appellant Gray Television, Inc.’s motion to unseal the order. View "In re VSP-TK / 1-16-18 Shooting (Gray Television, Inc., Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Following an investigatory stop, defendants Wesley Haynes, Tristan Harris and Dennis Magoon, were all charged in different dockets with possession of heroin and defendant Magoon was charged with possession of a concealed weapon while committing a felony. In November 2018, defendants moved to suppress evidence. Defendants moved for reconsideration of the Vermont Supreme Court’s dismissal of their interlocutory appeals because defendants had not demonstrated why they could not seek review by entering a conditional guilty plea. Defendants argued they should not be required to enter a conditional guilty plea instead of seeking interlocutory review. The Supreme Court agreed, concluding a defendant is not required to demonstrate that a conditional guilty plea is not practicable or available before seeking interlocutory review. "A defendant in a criminal action may seek interlocutory review if the requirements of Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 5 are met." In this case, because the criminal division did not explain the basis for granting interlocutory appeal, th Supreme Court dismissed the interlocutory appeals without prejudice to defendants refiling after the trial court issued a decision. View "Vermont v. Haynes" on Justia Law

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Jacob Oblak petitioned the superior court for access to an affidavit of probable cause filed in a criminal case and was denied. He appeals to the Vermont Supreme Court, arguing Vermont Rule of Public Access to Court Records 6(b)(24), which excludes from public access records filed in a criminal proceeding when no probable cause has been found, was not intended “to transform traditionally public documents [including affidavits of probable cause] into secret ones.” He further argued the lower court’s interpretation of Rule 6(b)(24) violated the First Amendment. Because the Supreme Court found the lower court should have considered his petition in light of the “Exceptions” provisions of Rule 7, it reversed and remanded. View "In re Affidavit of Probable Cause (Oblak, Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law

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This case raised a facial challenge to Vermont’s statute banning disclosure of nonconsensual pornography. “Revenge porn” was a popular label describing a subset of nonconsensual pornography published for vengeful purposes. “Nonconsensual pornography” was defined generally as “distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent.” Vermont’s law, enacted in 2015, made it a crime punishable by not more than two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $2,000 or both to “knowingly disclose a visual image of an identifiable person who is nude or who is engaged in sexual conduct, without his or her consent, with the intent to harm, harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce the person depicted, and the disclosure would cause a reasonable person to suffer harm.” In late 2015, defendant was charged by information with violating the statute. The complainant contacted police after she discovered that someone had posted naked pictures of her on a Facebook account belonging to Anthony Coon and “tagged” her in the picture. Complainant told police that she had taken naked pictures of herself and sent them to Coon through Facebook Messenger. She advised that the pictures had been sent privately so that no one else could view them. Defendant Rebekah VanBuren admitted to the officer that she saw complainant’s pictures on Coon’s Facebook account and that she posted them on Facebook using Coon’s account. A judge found probable cause for the charge against defendant in December 2015. In February 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss. She argued that 13 V.S.A. 2606 violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it restricted protected speech and it could not survive strict scrutiny. Defendant also asserted that complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy because she took the pictures herself and messaged them to Coon without any promise on his part to keep the pictures private. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the statute was constitutional on its face, but the State did not show the images were not distributed by the person depicted in a manner that undermined any reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore the trial court was justified in dismissing the State’s charge against defendant. As the State acknowledged in its briefing, “it is difficult to see how a complainant would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in pictures sent to a stranger.” But the Court found the State did not present evidence to demonstrate that, in contrast to a stranger, Coon had a relationship with complainant of a sufficiently intimate or confidential nature that she could reasonably assume that he would not share the photos she sent with others. Nor did it offer evidence of any promise by Coon, or even an express request by complainant, to keep the photos confidential. The State stipulated that complainant and Coon were not in a relationship at the time complainant sent the pictures. Therefore, no evidence was presented to permit a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the photos she sent. View "Vermont v. VanBuren" on Justia Law

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In December 2015, Vemont charged defendant Jeremy Fischer with sexual assault of a minor based on an allegation that defendant raped the complainant. Defendant testified at trial. He confirmed he was with the complainant on the evening of the alleged assault. On cross-examination, the State asked defendant, “And you mentioned that [the complainant] was trying to nuzzle with you, you were feeling uncomfortable, and that she pursued you, correct?” Defendant answered, “Correct.” The State then asked, “And you didn’t tell Detective Tallmadge any of that during your interview with him, did you?” Defendant replied, “I did not.” Defendant also confirmed that he had been convicted of providing false information to a police officer in 2016. The State’s closing arguments raised defendant’s failure to tell Detective Tallmadge that the complainant tried to pursue him. Defendant appealed his ultimate conviction, arguing the trial court violated his due process rights by allowing the State to impermissibly comment on his silence. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that under the facts of this case, commenting on defendant's omissions did not raise the concerns of fundamental fairness and due process present in the controlling caselaw, Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976). The Court determined defendant chose to respond to each of the detective’s questions and did not refuse to answer any specific questions. In this situation, the Court concluded defendant could not claim a due process violation. As such, the Supreme Court found no errors and therefore affirmed. View "Vermont v. Fischer" on Justia Law

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Defendant Treyez McEachin was convicted of three charges pursuant to a conditional plea that preserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress and dismiss. Defendant was charged with disorderly conduct based on fighting or violent, tumultuous, or threatening behavior, as well as resisting arrest and simple assault on a police officer. He argued on appeal that because his conduct in walking toward a police officer was not disorderly, the disorderly-conduct charge should have been dismissed. He contended that because the officer then wrongfully prolonged their encounter, all evidence of his subsequent conduct, including his assault of the officer well after he was taken into custody, should also have been suppressed, and the assault charge should have been dismissed. After review of the trial court record, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed the disorderly-conduct charge should have been dismissed, and accordingly reversed the denial of the motion to dismiss that charge. However, the Court affirmed denial of the motion to suppress the evidence underlying the assault charge, and affirmed that conviction. View "Vermont v. McEachin" on Justia Law

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Defendant Melissa Robitille appealed her conviction for involuntary manslaughter for the death of her son. She argued that the trial court violated the Confrontation Clause when it restricted cross-examination of the State’s key witness; that the State produced insufficient evidence to support a conviction; and that the court erred in failing to provide a specific unanimity instruction to the jury. Defendant's thirteen-year-old son was born with severe birth defects; to ease his pain, defendant often placed alcohol in the son's feeding/water bag. The child died as a result of his medical condition and acute ethanol toxicity; his blood alcohol level was 0.146. Defendant alleged multiple errors at trial warranted reversal of her conviction. The Vermont found no such errors and affirmed her conviction. View "Vermont v. Robitille" on Justia Law