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After Weed Legalization, Burlington Police Search Cars Less Often

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Driving through Burlington? Don't worry about hiding your bud. City cops have all but stopped searching cars since possession of a small amount of weed became legal last July.

In the six months before legalization, Burlington cops searched cars 24 times. But they've conducted just four searches since July 1, 2018, and none so far this year, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told the police commission recently.

For years, the faint whiff of pot was a sweet smell to cops looking for a reason to conduct searches during traffic stops. Legalized possession, they worried, would take away their most reliable source of probable cause, preventing them from finding whatever else might be stashed under the passenger seat.

"That's the booger in all of this," Jennifer Morrison, then-president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, told Seven Days before possession became legal.

But the practice was problematic even before the law took effect. In 2017, former officer Christopher Lopez was caught lying about smelling marijuana to justify a car search the year before. He resigned, and prosecutors had to drop more than a dozen cases he'd investigated.

In January, the Vermont Supreme Court found that the faint scent of marijuana was not enough to justify a 2014 search of Gregory Zullo's car by state police. Zullo, who is African American, had to walk eight miles after a trooper with a history of questionable searches towed his car and refused to give him a ride home.

Research by professor Stephanie Seguino of the University of Vermont has shown that people of color in Vermont are more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they are less likely to be caught with contraband.

Fewer searches will hopefully lead to more equitable treatment for black drivers, del Pozo said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Smell No Evil"

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