Lawsuit Accuses Colchester Police of Racial Profiling | Off Message

Lawsuit Accuses Colchester Police of Racial Profiling


  • Daniel Fishel
A new federal lawsuit accuses the Colchester police of discriminating against a black man during a 2016 traffic stop.

Ralph Moore of Brooklyn, N.Y., spent more than eight months in jail on charges that a Vermont judge eventually ruled stemmed from an unlawful search, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

The suit alleges unlawful search and seizure and a violation of equal protection rights by Officer Victor Bitca, former police chief Jennifer Morrison and the Town of Colchester.

Moore is represented by Robert Appel, former director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. He seeks unspecified damages exceeding $75,000.

Moore was a passenger in a car Bitca pulled over on March 7, 2016, as the officer responded to a trespassing complaint at a Colchester Dunkin' Donuts.

Neither Moore nor the driver matched the description of the alleged trespasser, but Bitca pulled them over for failing to signal and a broken brake light after they left the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot.

Bitca commented that their presence outside the coffee shop seemed "suspicious," the complaint states, and called for backup. When another officer arrived, Bitca ordered Moore out of the car. He "panicked" and tried to run away, but was caught, the suit says.

Moore was arrested on drug and weapons charges, as well as providing false information to police and as a fugitive from justice for a warrant in New York.

Chittenden Superior Court Judge Nancy Waples dismissed three of the charges after ruling that Bitca did not have reasonable suspicion to expand the traffic stop.

Moore believes Bitca's suspicion was due to Moore's race.

"One of the reasons I decided to bring this case was to send a message that unlawful racial profiling by Vermont law enforcement will not go unchallenged," Appel said.

Colchester Police Chief Doug Allen said the town is aware of the suit but declined to comment.

The lawsuit parallels an ongoing federal case filed in 2016 by the ACLU of Vermont on behalf of Shamel Alexander, a black Brooklyn man who was charged with heroin possession after Bennington police searched him while he was taking a cab to a Chinese restaurant. Alexander was sentenced to 10 years in jail before the Vermont Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

Both civil cases allege the respective towns violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for deliberate indifference to a "de facto policy, practice and/or custom" of racial discrimination.

In supporting that claim, both cases cite a widely publicized 2017 study coauthored by University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino that found widespread racial bias in police traffic stops across Vermont, including in Bennington and Colchester. U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford relied heavily on the findings in allowing the Alexander case to proceed last August.

But the traffic-stop study faces new criticism since the federally and state-funded, Montpelier-based Crime Research Group issued a report in January criticizing its methodology. The new report, authored by director of research Robin Joy, analyzed Bennington police stops in 2016 and found no evidence of racial bias.

The new report prompted the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police to call this week for the Vermont legislature to fund another statewide study on the issue.

"My sense is they don't want to face facts," Appel said of those questioning the UVM findings.

Seguino and coauthor Nancy Brooks of Cornell University defended their earlier study in a 13-page rebuttal that Seguino said she submitted to state lawmakers and the Vermont Attorney General's office. They said the CRG report downplays evidence of racial bias within the analysis.