Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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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

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Plaintiff Garrett Cornelius filed suit alleging invasion of privacy by newspaper, the Chronicle, after newspaper published two articles containing information about him. In a series of orders, the trial court granted newspaper’s motions to strike the claims under the anti-SLAPP statute and awarded newspaper a small fraction of the attorney’s fees it sought. Plaintiff appealed the orders striking his claims, and the newspaper appealed the amount of attorney’s fees. Consolidating the cases for review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the claims were properly stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute, but the court erred in limiting the attorney’s fees award. View "Cornelius v. The Chronicle, Inc." on Justia Law

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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