Racial Bias Lawsuit Against Bennington Police Clears Hurdle | Off Message

Racial Bias Lawsuit Against Bennington Police Clears Hurdle

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DANIEL FISHEL
  • Daniel Fishel
A federal judge has rejected a Bennington police request to dismiss a racial bias lawsuit filed by a black man whose drug conviction was overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court.

In a ruling handed down this week, U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford upheld most claims brought by Shamel Alexander, who in 2013 came to Bennington from upstate New York in a taxi cab and was arrested with 11 grams of heroin in his possession. The civil case will be allowed to proceed.

After Alexander, a first time offender, served three years of a 10 year sentence, high court justices unanimously overturned his conviction, saying the police stop and search appeared to be racially motivated.

Alexander then sued the arresting officers, the town of Bennington, the police department and Bennington police chief Paul Doucette.

“A person’s race does not provide grounds to initiate a criminal investigation,” David Williams, one of Alexander’s attorneys, said in a prepared statement. “We are pleased that Mr. Alexander will be able to pursue these claims and vindicate his constitutional rights. And we hope that this case will finally make Bennington take its problem with racial profiling seriously.”

A trial date for Alexander’s lawsuit has not been scheduled. Bennington police have argued that Alexander’s arrest was not a product of racial bias and that its officers do not engage in racial profiling.

Crawford dismissed Alexander’s claims against Doucette and the police department, but preserved claims against the individual officers who interacted with Alexander.

The Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is also representing Alexander.

In other legal news, the Vermont ACLU said it recently lost another lawsuit in which it challenged police practices.

Last week, Judge Helen Toor dismissed the claims of Greg Zullo, an African American man who was stopped by a state trooper in Rutland in 2014, the ACLU said.

Trooper Lewis Hatch said he pulled Zullo over because snow partially obstructed his license plate. After he approached Zullo’s car, Hatch later claimed, he smelled marijuana and asked to search the vehicle. When Zullo refused, Hatch had the car towed and Zullo walked eight miles home. A pipe and grinder were found inside the car, but Zullo was not ticketed for any offense.

According to the ACLU, Toor ruled that under current Vermont law, the smell of marijuana can provide probable cause for police to search a vehicle, even though Vermont has decriminalized marijuana possession. The ACLU said it may appeal Toor’s decision.


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