In response to studies showing disparities in how minorities are treated by law enforcement, police in Burlington and across the state have vowed to work towards eliminating racial bias in policing. A recent case in Chittenden Superior Court suggests that there’s still room to improve.
Last week, Judge Dennis Pearson tossed charges against Danny Connors, a 49-year-old black Burlington resident, after deciding the stop and search that led to his drug arrest was unconstitutional.
“How many different ways did this stop and frisk of the defendant violate basic constitutional principles?” Pearson wrote sarcastically in his October 24 decision.
Connors “felt targeted,” because of his race, said his attorney, Sara Puls. He was determined to fight the charge, she said.
“Anecdotally, a lot of my African American clients definitely feel targeted,” Puls said. “We all have a constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures, and the minute that is not true is going to be a very scary situation for all citizens.”
The case began with a burglary call.
On May 6, police responded to a Conger Avenue home in Burlington’s Lakeside neighborhood for a report that a gun had been stolen. In the course of the investigation, the homeowner, Jesse Hays, told cops that he’d spoken days before with two men who noticed that he was carrying a gun, according to court documents.
A neighbor of Hays, who would play a key role in the case, told police that he had witnessed the encounter between Hays and “two black males in the park,” the court documents say. The neighbor told police that one of the men was a “stocky black male,” and he had later seen him around Hays’ home.
Six days later, the neighbor flagged down police and said he had sighted the same “stocky black male” walking in Lakeside Park.
“Connors himself was not doing anything remotely suspicious, other than looking like a ‘stocky black male,’ and being in the same area where a burglary had been reported several days before,” Pearson wrote in his judgment.
A Burlington police officer, soon joined by two more officers, stopped and searched Connors, who did not attempt to flee. He told police he had a small amount of marijuana — subject to a civil fine and not a criminal penalty in Vermont. As they spoke to Connors, officers learned that the neighbor had recanted his identification of Connors as the suspect.
Nonetheless, officers continued to question Connors, who eventually confessed to having crack cocaine in his pocket. Connors, who has no criminal history in Vermont, was charged with felony cocaine possession.
But police had no right to stop Connors in the first place, let alone frisk and interrogate him, Pearson said. “The encounter ... never should have occurred.”
File: Matthew Thorsen
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, though, defended his officers’ actions.
“The officer had a duty to investigate this lead, and frisked Mr. Connors for his own safety in doing so,” del Pozo said. “When the crime under investigation has put its perpetrators in possession of a handgun, simply taking a suspect’s word for it that he is not armed does not pass the straight face test.”
Puls thinks the judge got it right.
“It was so glaringly obvious that it was an unlawful stop,” she said. “Reasonable suspicion is a pretty low bar, usually, for law enforcement to meet in these types of case. There was no reason to be bothering this man. He was just in the park.”