Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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Defendant Cory Jones appealed his conviction by jury for dispensing less than 200 milligrams of heroin. The trial court sentenced defendant to a minimum of 16 months and a maximum of 36 months in prison, with credit for 302 days in pre-trial detention. He appealed the denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal and his sentence. The Vermont Supreme Court determined the State’s case relied, to a degree, on circumstantial evidence. The Court determined the trial court record contained significant evidence that supported the inference defendant dispensed heroin to a police informant during a "controlled purchase," therefore the trial court did not err in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal. On appeal of his sentence, defendant argued the trial court did not account for the nature and circumstances of the crime. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Vermont v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Gregory Zullo filed a civil rights action against the State of Vermont for alleged violations of his state constitutional rights arising from the stop, seizure and search of his vehicle. The civil division of the superior court granted summary judgment to the State, concluding that although damages may be obtained in an implied private right of action directly under Article 11, in this case neither the stop, the exit order, nor the seizure and search of plaintiff’s vehicle violated Article 11’s constraints against governmental searches and seizures. The issues this appeal presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review were: (1) whether Article 11 provided a self-executing right of action for damages; (2) whether the Vermont Tort Claims Act (VTCA) governed any such action and, if not, whether the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity shielded the State from liability; (3) if the action is neither governed by the VTCA nor barred by sovereign immunity, whether the Supreme Court should impose any limitations on obtaining damages against the State; and (4) assuming a damage remedy exists and plaintiff can potentially overcome any other barriers to obtaining damages against the State, whether the stop, exit order, and/or seizure and search of plaintiff’s vehicle violated plaintiff’s rights under Article 11, thereby entitling him to seek such relief. The Supreme Court concluded an implied private right of action for damages was available directly under Article 11, that the VTCA did not apply to plaintiff’s suit alleging a constitutional tort, and that the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity did not bar such an action against the State, but that damages could be obtained only upon a showing that a law enforcement officer acting within the scope of the officer’s duties either acted with malice or knew or should have known that those actions violated clearly established law. Furthermore, the Court concluded that although the exit order would not have violated Article 11 had the initial stop been lawful, both the stop and the warrantless seizure and subsequent search of plaintiff’s vehicle violated Article 11. In light of these conclusions, the Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment, and reversed dismissal of one of plaintiff’s counts in an earlier decision. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Zullo v. Vermont" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff H. Brooke Paige, a taxpayer and resident of Washington, Vermont, appealed the civil division’s dismissal of his complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the State of Vermont and the Washington Town School Board. In his complaint, he asserted that Act 46, a 2015 state law related to education funding, spending, and governance, impermissibly coerced town residents into voting to merge school districts. He further alleged that Act 46 deprived town residents of local control of education and would result in unequal educational opportunities in violation of the Education and Common Benefits Clauses of the Vermont Constitution. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiff lacked standing to bring this action and therefore affirmed the trial court judgment dismissing this case. View "Paige v. Vermont" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rein Kolts appealed his conviction by jury of the aggravated sexual assault of a child. On appeal, he argued: (1) his confession that he repeatedly had sex with his niece should have been suppressed because law enforcement obtained it by interrogating him in a custodial setting without advising him of his Miranda rights; (2) the confession was involuntary because he was coerced by police; (3) the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded testimony by his two expert witnesses; and (4) the trial court erred when it instructed the jury that it could decide that he confessed voluntarily even if it determined that the police’s use of psychological tactics contributed to his confession. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Kolts" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court withdrew its July 6, 2018 opinion in this matter, determining the State did not have a statutory right to appeal in this case. Defendant Liana Roy was charged with custodial interference for taking her four-year-old daughter, who was then in custody of the Department for Children and Families (DCF), on a two-day trip out of the state without DCF’s permission. After the State rested its evidence at trial, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing the evidence failed to demonstrate that she interfered with DCF’s custody to the degree necessary for 13 V.S.A.2451 to apply. At most, defendant argued, this was just “a visit gone bad.” The court denied this motion, holding that the State established the essential elements of its case. After defendant presented her evidence and the State called a rebuttal witness, the State rested and defendant renewed her motion for a judgment of acquittal. The court again denied the motion. The jury convicted. Defendant subsequently moved to set aside the verdict, V.R.Cr.P. 29(c), or for a new trial, V.R.Cr.P. 33, arguing that nothing in the custody order specifically put defendant on notice that she was acting in violation of the authority of the legal custodian, so the State had failed to demonstrate the requisite intent to deprive or interfere with DCF’s custody. The trial court agreed and issued a written decision in July 2017 granting defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal. The court noted that “the jury’s verdict was reasonable” based on the instructions given during the trial. But the court explained that it had erred in not instructing the jury that, to prove custodial interference when DCF is the custodian, the State must produce evidence of “a court order . . . detail[ing] the parent-child contact parameters.” In this amended opinion, the Supreme Court considered whether the State had a statutory right to appeal the trial court’s post-guilty-verdict judgment of acquittal, and, if not, whether the Supreme Court should use its authority pursuant to Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 21 to grant the State the extraordinary remedy of reversing the trial court’s ruling and reinstating the guilty verdict. The Court concluded the State did not have a statutory right to appeal in this case, and declined to exercise its authority to grant extraordinary relief. View "Vermont v. Roy" on Justia Law

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Defendant Kevin Cook conditionally pled guilty to driving under the influence. He appealed the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss, in which he argued his failure to signal a turn was not illegal under the circumstances and thus did not give officers a reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop him. Finding that because Vermont’s motor-vehicle statutes required defendant to signal before turning, the officer here had a reasonable, articulable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Vermont Supreme Court therefore affirmed Cook's conviction. View "Vermont v. Cook" on Justia Law

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In 2015, defendant Norman McAllister was charged with one count of sexual assault and two counts of procuring a person for the purposes of prostitution, based on allegations that defendant entered into a sex-for-rent arrangement with S.L., the complaining witness, and arranged for a third person to have sex with S.L. in exchange for payment of her electric bill. After a jury trial, defendant was convicted of one count of procuring a person for the purposes of prostitution - the sex-for-electric bill arrangement - and acquitted of the other two charges. Defendant appealed that conviction. The Vermont Supreme Court found the trial court erred in: (1) admitting inadmissible evidence of prior bad acts involving defendant’s uncharged conduct with a deceased third party; and (2) instructing the jury, mid-deliberations, to disregard unstricken and admitted testimony. Accordingly, the conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Vermont v. McAllister" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Anthony Bridger was denied habeas relief. On appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, he sought credit for time served prior to his arraignment on burglary charges. The State cross-appealed, requesting the Supreme Court reverse the trial court's decision granting petitioner one day of credit. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's grant of one day of credit, and otherwise affirmed the trial court's decision. View "Bridger v. Systo" on Justia Law

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Defendant Doug Finkle, Sr. appeals the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress and dismiss. He was convicted on drug possession charges. He argued the police affidavit submitted in support of a request for a search warrant, which relied upon information provided by a confidential informant (CI), did not establish the requisite probable cause to issue the warrant and search his residence. He also argued his assertion of factual errors and omissions in the affidavit compelled the court to hold a hearing before denying the motion. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Finkle" on Justia Law

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Defendant Donald Francis appealed his conviction of driving under the influence (DUI), arguing that the trial court impermissibly burdened the exercise of his Fourth Amendment rights when it allowed evidence of his refusal to submit to a warrantless blood draw and then instructed the jury that it was permitted but not required to draw an inference from that evidence. In addition, he argued this evidence should not have been admitted because it was not relevant and was unduly prejudicial. Based on its decision in Vermont v. Rajda, 2018 VT 72, the Vermont Supreme Court rejected defendant’s constitutional argument, and declined to address his unpreserved relevance and prejudice arguments. Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Francis" on Justia Law