Decision restores portions of civil rights suit against BPD, Doucette, town over traffic stop
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:24 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2018.
BENNINGTON — Portions of a civil rights lawsuit filed against Bennington police officers, Chief Paul Doucette and the town that were dismissed last year are back on the table, after a ruling Thursday by Judge Geoffrey Crawford in U.S. District Court.
The suit was filed on behalf of Shamel Alexander, who is African American, over a 2013 arrest on Main Street and subsequent conviction for heroin trafficking. It alleges discrimination and profiling on the basis of race and violation of Alexander's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
In May 2017, Crawford had dismissed suit allegations against the individual officers involving the legality of the search and seizure that led to Alexander's arrest. The town remained as a defendant concerning the search process but not concerning alleged discrimination against Alexander.
The judge also dismissed improper search claims against Doucette and the BPD, saying those could be continued against the town alone.
At that time, Crawford allowed to proceed allegations that the officers discriminated against or profiled Alexander on the basis of race and that the town through its police department had a policy or custom of unconstitutionally prolonging traffic stops.
After attorneys with the ACLU, which is representing Alexander, revised the original suit complaint with additional information about alleged racial profiling, the defendants filed a second motion to dismiss.
Crawford denied that bid on Thursday.
"This is a hugely important decision," said Lia Ernst, a staff attorney with ACLU-Vermont.
Now, she said, the plaintiff's requests for information through the suit discovery process will allow a closer examination of BPD officer training and procedures under Doucette.
ACLU attorneys have said they hope to spur an examination of anti-discrimination policies and training methods for police agencies throughout Vermont.
Ernst added in an ACLU release on Thursday: "The court recognized that the unconstitutional search leading to Mr. Alexander's arrest can't be brushed aside as an outlier or anomaly. The data show department-wide, systemic racial bias in Bennington's policing — municipal leaders shrugging their shoulders, issuing blanket denials, and blaming `bad apples' is not going to cut it anymore. It is past time for Bennington to take its racial profiling problem seriously."
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Thursday that local officials would refer comment to the town's attorneys.
Nancy Sheahan, of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, of Burlington, who is representing the defendants, said it appears the rights suit "is back where it started" when it was filed.
Basically, what the court is doing, she said, is allowing the plaintiffs to continue examining police procedures and policies for evidence of profiling or discrimination.
The next step in the process will be filing of the defendants' answer to the amended suit, Sheahan said, followed by the discovery process, which now will be extended as part of a revised trial schedule.
Profiling research a key
Ernst said a factor in Crawford's Aug. 9 decision was that the ACLU was able to introduce in the amended complaint information from recent research on profiling during traffic stops by police in Vermont, which found a higher rate of stops and searches of nonwhites by the BPD and at other agencies.
A 2017 study report based on data from Vermont law enforcement agencies by college professors Stephanie Sequino and Nancy Brooks indicated that Bennington police had stopped black drivers out of proportion to their share of the driving population and were more than five times more likely to search black drivers than white drivers.
Study data concerning the BPD focused on the period 2014-16, according the judge's decision, and also found that a racial disparity in traffic stops was not isolated to a few officers but was "observable in data for 22 of 24 officers."
Stopped in a taxi
The suit stems from an incident on July 11, 2013, when 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.
But on appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court tossed 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, 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.
Named in the suit were BPD Cpl. Andrew Hunt, who conducted the search, and former BPD Detective Peter Urbanowicz, who first noticed the taxi while he was off-duty and called Hunt to suggest he check the vehicle — coming from Albany, N.Y. — in connection with a police bulletin about drug sales in town that had followed a similar pattern.
Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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