Civil rights suit over traffic stop by Bennington police settled
This story was updated at 11:50 a.m. on June 24, 2020.
BENNINGTON — The Select Board has signed off on a settlement agreement expected to end a civil rights suit on behalf of an African American man stopped here in 2013 and arrested on drug charges.
The settlement would end a suit in U.S. District Court that was filed in July 2016 against the town, the police department, Police Chief Paul Doucette and officers involved in the traffic stop on Main Street that led to the arrest of Shamel Alexander for drug trafficking.
Although heroin packets were found in a search of Alexander, who had arrived in Bennington in a taxi, the Vermont Supreme Court later tossed out the evidence in a ruling that found the stop was improperly extended and violated his constitutional rights.
After his conviction was vacated and the charges dropped and Alexander was released from custody, he filed suit, alleging discrimination and profiling on the basis of race and violation of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
In a statement released Tuesday, attorney Michael Leddy, representing the town and the individual defendants, said all parties involved agreed to issue the settlement statement, which read:
"The town of Bennington and Shamel Alexander have agreed to resolve the case of Alexander v. Town of Bennington in order to avoid expensive and protracted litigation. The allegations remain disputed and the settlement is not deemed to be an admission of any liability. The case has been pending for nearly four years, and it is the desire of both parties to put the matter behind them and move forward."
Leddy said all of the parties involved, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, representing Alexander, have agreed to the terms.
The Select Board voted unanimously Monday to accept the settlement. Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the agreement followed lengthy mediation, and it had been approved by the town's insurance carrier, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns' Property and Casualty Intermunicipal Fund, and Alexander and his attorneys.
"All the parties agreed that this has gone on long enough and would like to move on," Hurd said.
The insurer will pay Alexander $30,000, Hurd said, and all liability claims in the suit will be dismissed with prejudice, meaning they can't be refiled.
Board Chairman Donald Campbell acknowledged before the vote the ACLU's work in defending the rights of citizens.
"The ACLU's work in this has been important," he said, "and we as a community need to realize that, although we were on the other side of this Vermont needs a strong ACLU."
He said he hopes the town can work with the organization as Bennington begins to implement new policies designed to bring more of a community policing approach to the police department.
While pressing the suit on behalf of Alexander, ACLU attorneys said they hoped to spur an examination of anti-discrimination policies and training methods for police agencies throughout Vermont.
Officials with the ACLU and NAACP of Vermont have been critical recently of the BPD, Doucette, Hurd and Campbell, relative to statements the three town officials have made in defending the BPD against allegations of systemic racism and racial profiling in traffic stops.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, ACLU of Vermont senior staff attorney Lia Ernst said, “Our client is grateful to have this case resolved, having shined a spotlight on system-wide discriminatory police practices in Bennington. This settlement does not alleviate the need for top-to-bottom changes to a deeply troubled police department and to a municipal leadership that continues to deny there is even a problem with unconstitutional police practices in Bennington. The people of Bennington deserve far better.”
The ACLU statement added that the defendants "had twice asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit—and was twice rejected. In denying the defendants’ second motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled that, based on facts alleged, it was reasonable to infer that, “had Bennington appropriately trained or supervised its police officers with respect to racial disparities in stops and searches, Alexander would not have been stopped or searched and his equal protection rights would not have been violated.”
A review of the BPD policies and procedures by the International Association of Chiefs of Police was contracted for by the board last fall in response to criticism that the department had not adequately responded to complaints of racially motivated harassment against former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington.
The board this month voted to hire Curtiss Reed Jr., of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to help implement the IACP's 25 recommendations for improving the BPD. Reed will oversee a kickoff of that process with a community meeting on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Stopped on Main St.
The BPD said it received a tip in 2013 that a black man would be arriving in town in a taxi with the intention of selling drugs in the vicinity of a parking lot off Main and School streets.
On July 11, 2013, a taxi in which Alexander was riding was stopped in downtown Bennington. Alexander was arrested and later convicted on heroin trafficking charges and sentenced to a 10-year prison term.
However, on appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court threw out the results of a search of Alexander's possessions — including 401 bags of heroin — and vacated his conviction in early 2016.
The court determined that the search was improperly expanded beyond the scope of reasonable suspicion. The state subsequently dismissed the drug charges in Superior Court.
Alexander, who was 25 at the time of his arrest, was freed in March 2016 after being incarcerated while awaiting trial and then serving time after he was convicted and sentenced.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.