Burlington police at the scene of the incident involving the Meli brothers
A pair of civil rights lawsuits brought by two Black men against Burlington police officers can proceed, a federal judge ruled this week.
The City of Burlington had asked Judge William Sessions to rule in its favor by providing something known as summary judgment in both cases. But Sessions denied the motion and will allow Jérémie Meli and Mabior Jok to pursue their excessive force claims related to separate downtown incidents in 2018.
The U.S. District Court judge did toss several other parts of the lawsuits, including claims brought by two of Meli's brothers, who were with him the night of the incident.
Meli was injured in September 2018 when sergeant Jason Bellavance shoved him while responding to a call outside of a bar. Meli’s head slammed into a wall, knocking him unconscious. Police arrested him on charges that were later dropped.
The previous night, on the same block of Burlington’s Main Street, Jok was standing in the center of a group of people when Officer Joseph Corrow approached and took Jok to the ground. Corrow believed that Jok was engaged in a fight, he said. The officer was not disciplined following an internal investigation.
The city sought to dismiss both lawsuits on several grounds, including that the officers were protected by the judicial doctrine of qualified immunity. The principle often prevents people from winning lawsuits against public officials who violate their constitutional rights, unless previous cases have “clearly established” the conduct was a violation.
Critics, including civil rights and police reform advocates in Vermont, have pushed for an end to the doctrine, arguing that it unfairly limits victims of police violence who sue individual officers that harmed them.
Sessions did determine that the Burlington officers' actions violated clearly established law — if Meli and Jok can prove certain facts at trial.
"Taking an arrestee to the ground who is not violent, resisting, or posing a threat to officers or the public violates clearly established law,” Sessions wrote in the Meli ruling, one of a pair of 60-page orders.
The ruling means that the bulk of the claims can proceed to trial. Among them: that the city failed to properly train, supervise, and discipline its officers, and that former chief Brandon del Pozo is liable due to his position as a supervisor at the time.
The Melis' attorney, Evan Chadwick, said he and his clients are pleased with the decision and intend to take the case to a jury. He described the incident as one of the most well-documented excessive cases ever in Vermont, and noted that body camera footage has proven pivotal.
"I think that this decision is not only incredibly useful for us, but for everyone moving forward," Chadwick said. "Everyone in Vermont who is concerned about excessive force should read this decision, and lawmakers should be the first."
Burlington City Attorney Dan Richardson, speaking specifically to the Meli case, said the city still has viable legal defenses but is "pursuing all options to come to what we think is a fair and just resolution of this issue."
"The case represents a very sad outcome of events," he said, "and it certainly shouldn't be lost that the city does have a great deal of sympathy for the injuries these people suffered."
The incidents brought public scrutiny to the department's use-of-force practices and racial disparities in policing. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, local activists occupied Burlington's Battery Park and demanded that the city fire three officers accused of excessive force. Former sergeant Bellavance ultimately left the department as part of a $300,000 buyout from the city.
Last year, the city reached a $45,000 settlement with the wife of a man who died after a Burlington police officer punched him in the University of Vermont Medical Center ambulance bay in 2019.