MONTPELIER -- The state Supreme Court has reversed a man's drunken-driving conviction, ruling that a trooper had insufficient reason to approach his car after he had stopped on a rural road.
The driver, David Button, was on a gravel road in Berkshire late in the evening of Nov. 19, 2011, when the trooper, who had been traveling in the opposite direction, turned around and began following him, the court said.
"The trooper followed defendant's car for some distance," Associate Justice Beth Robinson wrote in the court's decision, "all the while observing no speeding, erratic driving, equipment defects or other violations involving either the vehicle or its operation."
Button pulled over and stopped without the trooper, Jay Riggen, signaling him to do so. Riggen pulled in behind Button's car, waited 30 seconds and then turned on his cruiser's blue lights, signaling that Button should stay put.
After the trooper approached Button's car, he developed evidence leading to a conviction of driving under the influence for Button, the court's decision said.
Button's legal team sought to bar the evidence collected by Riggen from trial, saying it was the fruit of an improper stop by the trooper. A Franklin Superior Court criminal division judge ruled the stop was proper and the evidence admissible, but the high court reversed that ruling in what Robinson described as a close call.
The trooper had observed no unlawful conduct by Button, but the fact that Button stopped caused another question to arise: whether there were facts objectively leading the trooper to reasonably believe Button was in distress or needed help.
On that score, as well, the court said no.
"Given these circumstances, the (lower) court held that a police officer could reasonably suspect that defendant ‘might be suffering a heart attack or other serious problem, causing him to stop unexpectedly in a remote location,"' Robinson wrote, quoting the trial judge's decision. "Under our standard, these facts are not enough to support an inference that defendant could be in distress."
State defender general Matthew Valerio, who argued for Button at the Supreme Court, said in an interview on Friday that the trooper and prosecutors had no facts to give rise to someone believing there was a violation of law or a problem worthy of being investigated.
"It's kind of the basis of our society, that the government doesn't have a right to intrude on you if you're not doing anything wrong," Valerio added.
Franklin County state's attorney Jim Hughes, whose office prosecuted Button, said, "I don't think it's a terrible decision. I don't think it's going to deter our police officers from making sure people are OK."