Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Defendant Tyler Heffernan was convicted by jury for simple assault and disorderly conduct after a late-night brawal in downtown Burlington. On appeal, he argued: (1) the court abused its discretion and denied him his rights to present a defense, to compulsory process, and to due process when it denied his motion to continue the trial despite the unavailability of a key witness due to her hospitalization; and (2) the court erred by not declaring a mistrial when a prospective juror who had previously worked with defendant as his supervisor made negative comments about defendant during jury selection. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed defendant’s convictions and remanded for a new trial on the basis that defendant was prejudiced by the inability to present testimony from the hospitalized witness. The Court did not reach defendant’s second issue regarding the mistrial. View "Vermont v. Heffernan" on Justia Law

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In 2015, a jury found defendant Juan Villar guilty of operating a motor vehicle on a public highway while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. The trial court sentenced defendant to six months to three years, all suspended except for fifteen days to serve, and placed him on probation. Defendant appealed; his sentence was not stayed pending appeal. "The appeals process was slow." The issue on appeal this case addressed was whether the government could dismiss an indictment or information pursuant to Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) while the case was pending on appeal. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that it may. Accordingly, the Court held the trial court erred in denying the state’s attorney’s notice of dismissal. Pursuant to Rule 48(a), the Court vacated the conviction and dismiss the underlying charges. View "Vermont v. Villar" on Justia Law

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Defendant Matthew Webster was convicted by jury of second-degree murder, reckless endangerment, and careless and negligent operation. Defendant challenged the denial of his motion to suppress statements he gave to the police following his arrest, an evidentiary ruling at trial permitting certain expert testimony, the trial court’s refusal to charge voluntary manslaughter, the denial of his motion for a new trial based on the prosecutor’s statements in closing argument, and the trial court’s imposition of a sentence of forty years to life on the murder conviction. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Webster" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether, under the Vermont Access to Public Records Act (PRA), a government agency had to ask state employees to determine whether they possess public records in digital form in their personal accounts when a requester specifically requested communications between specified state employees and third parties, including records that could be found only in the individual state employee’s personal account. Plaintiff Brady Toensing submitted a PRA request to then-Attorney General William Sorrell. Among other things, plaintiff requested responsive records from “January 1, 2012 to present” from eleven employees and officials in the Office of the Attorney General (AGO). In particular, he asked for: “[a]ny and all communications with or documents related to” forty-four individuals and entities and “communications received from or sent to” any email addresses with one of four domain names. Plaintiff’s request stated that “[t]hese requests include, but are not limited to, communications received or sent on a private email account . . . or private text messaging account.” Plaintiff wrote to the Chief Assistant Attorney General indicating that during the course of his numerous communications with the AGO, he had emphasized that his request encompassed communications sent to and received from the private accounts of the identified state employees, but that it did not appear that the nine AGO employees had searched for and produced responsive emails and text messages from their personal accounts. He added that, if the AGO was denying his request to the extent it included responsive records and text messages in personal accounts, the AGO should treat his letter as an administrative appeal of that denial. The Deputy Attorney General denied plaintiff’s administrative appeal, finding: (1) the PRA only addressed records generated or received by a public agency, and did not extend to private accounts or electronic devices that are not accessible to the agency; (2) there was no basis to conclude that the Legislature would have expected state agencies to conduct searches of the private accounts of state officials and employees, given the law’s attempt to balance the interest of public accountability against privacy interests; and (3) even in cases where an agency may be obligated in some cases to attempt to search a private account, plaintiff did not provide a sufficient justification for his request in this case. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the PRA’s definition of “public record” included digital documents stored in private accounts, but the Court emphasized that it extended only to documents that otherwise meet the definition of public records. On the facts of this case, the agency was required to ask specified state employees to provide public records from their personal accounts in response to plaintiff’s public records request. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. View "Toensing v. Attorney General of Vermont" on Justia Law

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Defendant Christian Allis entered a conditional plea to a first offense for driving under the influence (DUI), reserving the right to appeal the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained during law enforcement entry into his home. Defendant argued on appeal that the trial court’s erred in its decision to deny his suppression motion because: (1) the police entered his home without consent; and (2) even if there was consent, the State failed to prove that the consent was voluntarily given. After review of the trial court record, the Vermont Supreme Court found the State failed to meet its burden to prove consent to enter and, accordingly, reversed. View "Vermont v. Allis" on Justia Law

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This case involved a challenge under the Compelled Support Clause of the Vermont Constitution to the Town of Cabot’s grant of federally derived but municipally managed funds for the purpose of repairs to a historic church. Relying on Chapter I, Article Three of the Vermont Constitution, plaintiffs challenged the Town of Cabot’s award of a grant to fund repairs to the United Church of Cabot, and sought a preliminary injunction enjoining the grant. Defendants moved to dismiss the case on the ground that plaintiffs lacked standing. With respect to the Town’s motion to dismiss, the trial court concluded that plaintiffs did have standing on two independent bases: (1) as municipal taxpayers; or (2) alternatively, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution. The court rejected the argument that municipal taxpayer standing did not apply because the funds at issue originated from federal coffers. Just as federal taxpayers have standing to pursue certain Establishment Clause claims, as recognized in Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 85 (1968), state taxpayers have standing to advance Compelled Support claims under the Vermont Constitution. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiffs had standing to challenge the grant. However, the Court determined the evidence did not support the issuance of an injunction. The Court therefore affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Taylor v. Town of Cabot" on Justia Law

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Defendant Kai Freeman appeals a jury verdict convicting him of ten separate charges. Defendant was charged with eleven offenses relating to the sexual assaults of five minors. He argued on appeal that the trial court erred when it declined to sever the offenses charged against him. He also argued that the State did not present sufficient evidence upon which the jury could reasonably find him guilty of two of the charged offenses. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Freeman" on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from an embezzlement case concerning four missing bank deposits defendant Gregory Manning was entrusted to make for his employers. Defendant argued on appeal that: (1) the State’s failure to preserve potentially exculpatory video evidence should have resulted in the trial court dismissing the charge or at least barring the State from presenting testimony concerning the video recordings in question; (2) the State’s closing argument impermissibly shifted the burden to him to preserve the video evidence and improperly impugned his defense; and (3) given his continuing claim of innocence, the sentencing court’s probation condition requiring him to complete a particular program in which he would have to accept responsibility for his crime was not individually tailored to his case and thus constituted an abuse of the court’s discretion. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. View "Vermont v. Manning" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Alexis Gabree appealed the superior court’s decision to dismiss her petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). She argued that, during the plea colloquy, she never personally admitted that a factual basis for the charges existed, in violation of Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(f). After review, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded. View "In re Alexis Gabree" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Alexis Gabree appealed the superior court’s decision to dismiss her petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). She argued that, during the plea colloquy, she never personally admitted that a factual basis for the charges existed, in violation of Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(f). After review, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded. View "In re Alexis Gabree" on Justia Law