Recently, we came across three bills in the legislature whose implications, at first glance, appear less than ideal.
H.201 would remove the criminal penalties for the sale or possession of switchblades. S.57 would prevent police from enforcing Vermont's motorcycle helmet law unless the motorcyclist had already been stopped for another infraction. H.635 would make certain "minor" traffic offenses, including the driver's "possession or consumption of alcohol or cannabis," enforceable only if police had already stopped the vehicle for another violation.
Are lawmakers endorsing knife fights, traumatic brain injuries and wasted drivers? We asked them.
Let's start with the easiest bill to unpack. Rep. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), who introduced the switchblade bill, told Seven Days that H.201 is simply a way to protect Vermonters from needless criminal fines. As Brennan explained, fishermen and contractors, such as drywall installers, often need to open a utility knife when they have only one hand free. H.201 would align Vermont's statute with those of 40 other states by legalizing utility knives that open using gravity or springs.
"Everybody thinks of switchblades as the old West Side Story, Sharks-and-Jets kind of thing, so there's a lot of misunderstanding," Brennan said. As for public safety implications, he noted that Vermonters can already carry a machete in public with impunity.
The case of the proposed change in enforcing Vermont's helmet law is more nuanced. Sen. Andrew Perchlik (D/P-Washington), who introduced the bill, is vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He explained that, currently, police can stop a motorcyclist solely for riding helmetless — considered a "primary" offense — but cannot do the same with a driver who's not wearing a seat belt.
"I didn't think we were being consistent," Perchlik said. Proposing that a helmet violation be designated a "secondary" offense — meaning that the driver must first be stopped for a primary offense, such as speeding or running a red light — is also a way for Perchlik to "reach across the aisle" to his conservative colleagues.
It's an unconventional approach to public safety, given what we know about the effectiveness of helmets and helmet laws in saving lives. A 2021 study by Syracuse University's Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion found that, between 1999 and 2019, states with helmet laws had head-injury fatality rates 33 percent lower than those of states without such laws. If the goal is safety and fairness, why not simply allow police to stop drivers for not wearing seat belts?
Actually, Perchlik said he supports that approach. But many of his fellow lawmakers, he noted, view such measures as "giving police more reasons to basically pull over Black and brown Vermonters."
That concern over racial bias is behind H.635, which would designate certain traffic offenses as secondary. They include minor infractions, such as failing to carry a registration certificate, towing a trailer without a license plate and smoking in a vehicle while a child is present. But the current draft of the bill would also prevent police from stopping a driver who's consuming alcohol or cannabis, or whose passengers are doing so.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski), called H.635 a "win-win" for police, as well as for Black, Indigenous and people of color, such as himself.
"As we all know, the data is strong around how BIPOC folk are disproportionally pulled over and stopped. So this will be a win ... because we'll have less interaction with law enforcement," Colston said. "I think it's a win for law enforcement, too, because they won't have to deal with frivolous paperwork for minor traffic stuff that really [doesn't] have public safety issues."
Other states, including Virginia and Oregon, have adopted similar policies to discourage routine police-civilian interactions that sometimes turn hostile or deadly, Colston added.
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George has embraced such an approach. On December 21, she issued a memorandum announcing that her office will no longer prosecute cases based on evidence seized in what are called "pretext stops." Citing nationwide data on racial bias in traffic enforcement, George argued that "there is no indication so far that non-public-safety stops make communities or law enforcement safer."
Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police disagrees. He believes that preventing police from stopping drivers for minor infractions — let alone for more serious offenses such as drinking a beer or smoking a joint behind the wheel — is likely to have lethal consequences down the road.
Riggen, a specialist in traffic safety and impaired driving, examined data from 600 arrests in 2019 of motorists accused of driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. All were deemed "proactive" stops by troopers, he said, meaning they didn't result from 911 calls from other drivers or crashes that had already occurred.
Riggen found that, in 67 percent of the arrests, troopers had no idea that the driver was impaired at the time of the stop. One in five stops was for minor infractions — the kind of stop that H.635 would prohibit.
To demonstrate the "dire" consequences of reduced enforcement, Riggen pointed to figures from 2020. State police significantly scaled back their traffic stops that year, both to minimize COVID-19 exposures and because far fewer drivers were on the road. They saw a dramatic rise in DUI arrests that occurred only after the drivers had crashed.
Riggen supports efforts to improve interactions between civilians and police. He said the Vermont State Police is retraining troopers to communicate better with drivers on the side of the road.
"But by eliminating the stop in the first place? Whoa!" he said. "Now, we may be curbing negative public interactions with police, but we're contributing to an increase in DUI crash events."
Colston said he supports law enforcement efforts to get impaired drivers off the road and is willing to work with the police to revise the bill's wording so that they support it, too.
"If police have evidence that someone is under the influence, pull 'em over!" he said. "And if we don't have the correct language [in H.635], we'll try our best to get it right."
Disclosure: Ken Picard's wife, Stacy Graczyk, is a traffic safety resource prosecutor for the State of Vermont.