Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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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

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Defendant Erika Schapp appealed her conviction for refusing to submit to an evidentiary breath test to determine blood-alcohol concentration. Defendant argued: (1) the court erroneously admitted evidence of her refusal to take a preliminary breath test (PBT); (2) the State failed to meet its burden of proving the “reasonableness” requirement for criminal refusal beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) the State failed to prove that she refused the test. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Schapp" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jody Herring, who pleaded guilty to murdering her cousins Rhonda and Regina Herring, her aunt Julie Falzarano, and social worker Lara Sobel, challenged her sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole for Lara Sobel’s murder. She argued the trial court abused its discretion in holding her history of trauma and resulting anxiety disorder against her when it should have viewed them as mitigating factors, and in basing its decision on a mistaken understanding that, if given an indeterminate sentence, she might be paroled without having rehabilitated. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Herring" on Justia Law

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Petitioner James Burke sought post-conviction relief (PCR) alleging that his trial counsel, Attorney Daniel Maguire, provided ineffective assistance because of a conflict of interest. Burke was arrested in 2005 for sexual assault; he was arraigned in 2005, and his trial commenced in 2010. During the time between his arraignment and trial, petitioner filed nearly 200 motions, the vast majority of which were filed pro se in writing and orally on the record. These included motions to disqualify three trial court judges, a motion to disqualify a prosecutor, and nineteen motions for sanctions. Petitioner also expressed discontent with various appointed counsel at multiple points in pretrial proceedings. During discovery, he requested, was provided with, and then dismissed appointed counsel. Then, midway through depositions in 2009, petitioner once again requested and was provided with appointed counsel. Attorney Maguire ultimately represented petitioner at trial. Throughout pretrial proceedings, the trial court reprimanded petitioner many times for his disruptive language and behavior. In April 2008, defendant allegedly threatened the deputy state’s attorney after a day of depositions and was arrested for obstruction of justice. During a hearing in 2009 when petitioner again sought to dismiss his appointed counsel, the trial court questioned whether petitioner was competent to proceed pro se. Based in part on psychiatric evaluations in 2004 and 2006, the trial court ultimately determined that petitioner was competent to stand trial. However, it concluded that given his previous misconduct, it would be “naive to expect that [petitioner] would control himself were he to represent himself during trial.” And because the right to self-representation is not absolute, the trial court found that petitioner had forfeited his right to represent himself through his continued disruptive behavior. During jury draw, outside of potential jurors’ presence, Attorney Maguire expressed his desire to withdraw as petitioner’s counsel, citing threats of physical violence to himself and his family. The trial court denied Attorney Maguire’s motion to withdraw, but allowed a deputy sheriff, described as a legal assistant, to be seated between Attorney Maguire and petitioner throughout the trial. Petitioner was ultimately convicted and sentenced to eighteen to twenty years to serve. Petitioner filed his pro se motion for postconviction relief in February 2013. In March 2015, Attorney Paul Volk, an expert appointed by the trial court and compensated by the Defender General, filed an expert-opinion report with the PCR court after an independent legal review wherein he explained that he found ineffective counsel for some, but not all, of the reasons alleged in petitioner’s original petition. However, the post-conviction court denied relief. The Vermont Supreme Court found no reversible error in the PCR court's judgment and affirmed. View "In re James Burke" on Justia Law

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Defendant Robin O’Neill appealed after she was convicted for the aggravated murder of her ex-fiancé and his son. She argued the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction; that her statements to police should have been suppressed because they were the product of custodial interrogation without an attorney after she invoked her right to one; and that those statements should have been suppressed because the police coerced her into making them, depriving her of due process. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court held the evidence sufficiently and fairly supported the conviction; and that the statements defendant sought to suppress were not made in response to police interrogation, and were not the product of police coercion, thus were properly admitted. View "Vermont v. O'Neill" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bernard Rougeau appealed a trial court’s requirement that he post $100,000 cash or surety bond to mitigate any potential risk that he flee from prosecution. He was being held in custody for failure to post bail while he awaited trial on three counts: aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer by threatening with a deadly weapon, and interference with access to emergency services. In October 2018, defendant’s sister telephoned the state police to report that defendant was suicidal and had cut himself. The police arrived at the home and an officer located defendant outside, emerging from the surrounding woods, armed. According to the affidavit of probable cause, the officer warned him to drop the weapon, yet defendant advanced toward the officer, still holding the gun. Then defendant raised the firearm. In that moment, according to the affidavit, the officer shot defendant in the abdomen. Defendant was taken into custody and airlifted to Albany Medical Center to treat his wounds. In November 2018, he waived extradition from New York and was arraigned in Vermont on the above-three counts. The State argued that defendant’s charges involved a “mental health break,” threats of self-harm, and a firearm. Moreover, “an individual who flees into the woods with a firearm, indicating to his mother that he wants to be shot by the police, poses a significant risk of flight.” The State also recounted defendant’s criminal history, which involved felony convictions for arson, DUI III, multiple contempt-of-court convictions, and a failure to appear. The trial court concluded defendant posed a flight risk, and set bail based on his criminal record, the seriousness of the offenses, and the nature and circumstances of those offenses. On appeal, defendant challenged the imposition of bail and the amount of bail imposed. Finding no reversible error or abuse of discretion, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Rougeau" on Justia Law

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Defendant Mark Bergquist appealed after a jury convicted him of sexually assaulting his seven-year-old daughter, A.B. On appeal, defendant raised multiple arguments challenging the trial court’s: (1) admission of A.B.’s out-of-court statements pursuant to Vermont Rule of Evidence 804a; (2) exclusion of certain evidence concerning A.B.’s mother’s state of mind and conduct; (3) ruling allowing A.B. to testify out of defendant’s presence pursuant to Vermont Rule of Evidence 807(f); (4) denial of discovery of some of A.B.’s mental-health records; and (5) admission of expert testimony that he argues improperly “vouched” for A.B.’s credibility. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed defendant's conviction. View "Vermont v. Bergquist" on Justia Law

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Defendant Timothy O'Keefe was tried by jury and convicted on two counts of violation of an abuse protection order (VAPO), second offense. The Vermont Supreme Court found the State failed to prove defendant was validly served with the order he was accused of violating, and reversed. View "Vermont v.O'Keefe" on Justia Law

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Defendant Nichole Dubaniewicz appealed her conviction for one count of possession of one gram or more of heroin. A Vermont State Police officer pulled over a car for speeding along the interstate near the Town of Guildord. During the stop, the sergeant noticed that both defendant and J.S. appeared to be "dope sick." Although J.S. was the driver and registered owner of the car, defendant did most of the talking during the stop. Defendant told the sergeant that she and J.S. were driving to a grocery store in Massachusetts. The sergeant issued J.S. a written warning for speeding and for having one brake light out and released the car from the stop. The officer made a mental note of the distance and time it would take the pair to drive to the store and return; he also contacted another officer with whom he had conducted several previous drug investigations. The second officer was familiar with both J.S. and defendant, relaying that here were rumors that J.S. was involved in distributing heroin and that he believed that J.S. had recently been charged with a drug-related offense in New Hampshire. Around the estimated time the officer had calculated, he saw the same car traveling northbound on the interstate, and pulled it over for a second time for speeding and unsafe driving. This time, defendant was driving and J.S. was in the passenger seat. The sergeant observed that both parties appeared less "sick." After the second stop, additional officers and a canine unit were dispatched; a locked glove box was ultimately forced open containing bricks of heroin. Prior to trial, both J.S. and defendant filed motions to suppress the results of the search of the car and to dismiss, arguing that: (1) the sergeant’s exit order to defendant was unsupported by reasonable suspicion; (2) the forty-minute detention for the arrival of a canine unit was excessive; (3) the canine examination of the vehicle was unsupported by sufficient grounds; (4) the sergeant’s detention of the car while he sought a warrant was improper; (5) there were significant and misleading omissions and errors in the affidavits in support of the warrant application; and (6) the affidavit did not provide probable cause for the issuance of the search warrant. Because all evidence gathered after the sergeant determined that defendant was not operating under the influence should have been suppressed, including all of the heroin discovered, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed defendant’s conviction of one count of possession of one gram or more of heroin. View "Vermont v. Dubaniewicz" on Justia Law

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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