The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday threw out the conviction of an African American man who said the traffic stop that led to his 10-year prison sentence was the result of racial profiling.
Shamel Alexander, a first-time offender whom Seven Days wrote about in November, was found with 11 grams of heroin — $1,400 worth — after police pulled over a taxi cab he took from New York to Bennington in 2013.
Despite Alexander's lack of a record, a supportive family and a finding by prison officials that he was a low risk to reoffend, Bennington Superior Court Judge Nancy Corsones sentenced him to 10 years. During the sentencing hearing, Corsones warned of the dangers of drug dealers from "Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy." One Supreme Court justice described that rhetoric as potential racial "dog-whistle code words" during oral arguments in November.
Alexander's attorneys argued that police had no basis for interrogating Alexander, now 27, after they pulled over the cab. Police justified the stop by saying an informant told them a large African American man named "Sizzle" was coming to the area to sell drugs. (Alexander was not "Sizzle.") They also said the fact that Alexander was arriving via taxi from New York was suspicious.
The Supreme Court unanimously sided with Alexander.
"Though heroin and crack cocaine dealers from out of state may arrive in Bennington by taxicab or bus, so do out-of-state visitors coming to Vermont to ski, hike, shop, view the foliage, attend school, engage in legitimate business activities or enjoy a quiet getaway," Associate Justice Beth Robinson wrote in the opinion. "The act of traveling by taxi or bus from Albany to Bennington is not only entirely innocent in and of itself, but is common for law-abiding citizens."
An undercover cop who had observed Alexander in the back seat of the cab notified an on-duty police officer that the cab "would probably be a good traffic stop, if [you] could find him doing something wrong," and added that there was an "African American male" inside, according to court documents.
"The description of Sizzle on which the police officers’ suspicion of defendant was based was so broad and vague as to sweep in any large black male getting off a bus at the station in downtown Bennington, or arriving in Bennington via taxi, and thus too general and vague to exclude a large number of presumably innocent individuals," Robinson wrote.
Alexander was being held in a privately run prison in Baldwin, Mich., where the Vermont Department of Corrections houses 350 long-term inmates. He could remain behind bars pending a new trial, or the case could be dismissed. A hearing will likely be set in Bennington Superior Court in the coming weeks to decide what happens next.
Black people constitute 1.2 percent of Vermont's population but nearly 11 percent of Vermont's inmate population, according to the Department of Corrections.