Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In this case, the State of Vermont appealed the superior court’s dismissal of charges against defendant Michael Armstrong on speedy-trial grounds. It had been more than nineteen years since the charges against defendant were first brought and more than fifteen years since defendant was adjudicated incompetent to stand trial. The trial court dismissed the charges, finding that the State had failed in its obligation to reevaluate defendant’s competency, thereby violating defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision, finding that the delay was primarily due to defendant's incompetency, which was not attributable to the State, and the State had no duty to seek a reevaluation of the defendant's competency absent an indication of changed circumstances. The Court concluded that the defendant did not make a sufficient claim of denial of his right to a speedy trial, reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the charges, and remanded for further proceedings. View "State v. Armstrong" on Justia Law

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Defendant Edwin Rodriquez appealed the denial of his motion to be resentenced. Defendant was charged with aggravated domestic assault and related criminal counts for physically assaulting his then-romantic partner. After defendant pled not guilty, the trial court ordered defendant to be held without bail. While awaiting trial, defendant remained incarcerated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and unsuccessfully sought to be released on bail based on health concerns arising from conditions of his confinement. At a change-of-plea hearing in December 2021, defendant pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated domestic assault in the first degree and one count of domestic assault. As part of that plea agreement, the State agreed to a cap of twelve years of incarceration. in advance of his sentencing hearing, defendant submitted a sentencing memorandum in which he sought a 4- to 8-year sentence. Defendant referenced several mitigating factors in support of his sentence. The trial court evaluated the pertinent factors and arrived at what it considered an appropriate sentence: 9- to 12-years. On appeal, defendant argued the trial court failed to adequately consider the mitigating factors presented and improperly relied on prior uncharged conduct. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. View "Vermont v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Seth Alarie appealed a final relief-from-abuse (RFA) order requested by plaintiff Carissa Poss, his former girlfriend. On February 6, 2023, plaintiff filed a form RFA complaint alleging defendant physically abused and stalked her on two previous occasions. The family division issued a temporary RFA order on that date, and set a hearing for ten days later. Defendant was served with the complaint, both affidavits, the temporary order, and the notice of hearing at 4 p.m. on February 15. Both parties appeared at the hearing pro se. After the hearing, the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had abused and stalked plaintiff. The court issued its findings and conclusions orally from the bench and followed up with a written order prohibiting defendant from, among other things, contacting plaintiff or coming within 300 feet of plaintiff, her residence, place of employment, or car for one year. Represented by counsel on appeal, defendant attacked the proceedings, arguing that due process rights applied to RFA proceedings and that the court violated those rights by holding the hearing after he received less than twenty-four hours’ notice and not granting a continuance for defendant to retain counsel. He argued the trial court violated other due process rights when it did not permit him to cross-examine plaintiff and took testimony outside the scope of the facts alleged in the pleadings. Finding no deprivation of due process nor other reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Poss v. Alarie" on Justia Law

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In October 1987, defendant William Wheelock, III shot and killed James Brillon with a shotgun. He was convicted by jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to seventeen-years-to-life, with a split sentence to serve seventeen years. Following defendant’s release from probation in 1999, his Vermont probation officer (PO) filed three separate violation-of-probation (VOP) complaints against him in 1999, 2002, and 2003. In 2004, after the third VOP complaint was filed the year before, the VOP court concluded that defendant violated three probation conditions, revoked probation, and imposed the original sentence of life imprisonment. Defendant remained incarcerated since his 2003 arrest on the most recent VOP complaint, more than twenty years ago. In April 2018, defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR), arguing that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance by failing to appeal the 2004 revocation decision. The PCR court granted the petition and permitted defendant to appeal the 2004 violations and revocation of probation to this Court. On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the probation violations and reversed and remanded the court’s revocation of probation. "When the VOP court revoked defendant’s probation after failing to consider all of the evidence but following consideration of prior conduct, in contravention of 28 V.S.A. § 303(b), it clearly prejudiced defendant’s defense and adversely affected the integrity of the judicial process. ... we conclude that defendant is entitled to a new probation-revocation-disposition hearing." View "Vermont v. Wheelock" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, Parents challenged the termination of their residual parental rights to K.G. and L.G., and the denial of their post-termination motion to set aside the merits and disposition orders in this case under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) based on allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Vermont Supreme Court found it was unnecessary to decide if parents had a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in juvenile proceedings and affirmed both decisions. View "In re K.G. & L.G." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kyle Wolfe appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit against Vermont Digger and its editor (collectively, “VT Digger”), arguing that dismissal was improper and alleging that VT Digger’s publication of articles about him was defamatory and constituted a hate crime. VT Digger cross-appealed, arguing that its special motion to strike under Vermont’s anti-SLAPP statute should not have been denied as moot after its motion to dismiss was granted. In October 2021, plaintiff was arrested at the Vermont Statehouse on charges of aggravated disorderly conduct, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest based on conduct directed toward the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. VT Digger published an article in October 2021, titled, “Man arrested at the Vermont Statehouse after threatening House speaker.” In December 2021, plaintiff was released on conditions that required him to stay in Rutland County and prohibited him from possessing firearms or contacting the House Speaker. The same day, VT Digger published an article titled, “Defendant who threatened House speaker released with several conditions.” In February 2022, plaintiff allegedly posted annotated photographs of firearms to his social media accounts, “tagged” the House Speaker in a Facebook post, and asked others to contact the House Speaker, noting in a comment on Facebook, “Yes, I am aware this is technically ‘illegal.’ ” Due to this conduct, plaintiff was charged in March 2022 with violating the anti-stalking order. VT Digger subsequently published an article on March 3, 2022, detailing plaintiff’s new conditions of release. Finally, on March 7, VT Digger published another article describing plaintiff’s social media posts that led to the charge of violating the order against stalking and his conditions of release. Plaintiff filed a complaint against VT Digger in May 2022 accusing it of defamation by libel and slander and requesting the civil division enjoin VT Digger from publishing further articles about him. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim, but concluded the trial court should have granted VT Digger’s motion to strike, and therefore reversed and remanded for the court to award attorney’s fees to VT Digger pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute. View "Wolfe v. VT Digger et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant James Menize was convicted by jury on one count of aggravated sexual assault of a victim under the age of thirteen, and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Defendant raised multiple arguments on appeal: (1) the trial court abused its discretion in admitting prior bad-act evidence, not curing J.M.’s trial testimony which characterized the bad acts as each occurring on more than once occasion, and providing a jury instruction that failed to cabin the resulting prejudice; (2) the court should have suppressed all the inculpatory statements he made during a March 3, 2010, interview as either unconstitutionally elicited during a custodial interrogation without Miranda warnings or as involuntary; (3) the timing of the amended information prejudiced his ability to put on an effective defense because the new charge contained a different mental state for which he did not have time to adequately prepare; and (4) the court erred in overruling his objection to the state's expert witness testimony regarding another expert's testimony. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed defendant's conviction. View "Vermont v. Menize" on Justia Law

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Defendant Joshua Boyer challenged the denial of his motion to suppress evidence gathered in a consented-to search of his residence. In April 2018, M.B. complained to police that defendant had sexually assaulted her multiple times, including the previous day. M.B. resided in the house where the alleged assaults occurred with defendant, his wife, and other children. Defendant was arrested and released on conditions, including that he should not return to the family home where M.B. was then residing. Several days later, a police detective and an investigator from the Department for Children and Families (DCF) met with M.B. at a friend’s home where she was temporarily staying and asked if there might be DNA evidence present in M.B.’s family home. M.B. said that defendant might have disposed of a condom in her bedroom wastebasket and used a pair of her underwear to wipe himself off after the assault. Knowing that defendant and his wife would likely be away from their home to attend defendant’s arraignment, the detective asked M.B. if she would be comfortable returning to the house to locate this potential evidence. M.B., the detective, and the DCF investigator then went to the home. M.B. went outside and opened a trashcan by the exterior of the house, which she noted “had been gone through.” The detective seized the trashcan. The police later searched the trashcan pursuant to a warrant, which revealed a condom wrapper, stained paper towels, pharmacy receipts, and a rug. M.B. identified the rug as from her bedroom, and a subsequent forensic analysis confirmed the presence of defendant’s semen on the rug. Appealing the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence found at the house, defendant argued fourteen-year-old M.B. lacked authority to consent to the search. Defendant also argued his constitutional speedy-trial rights were violated. Because the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the search was lawful and that defendant’s speedy-trial rights were not violated, it affirmed the trial court’s decision. View "Vermont v. Boyer" on Justia Law

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Defendant Theodore Colehamer appealed two convictions by jury: (1) felony driving under the influence (DUI), fourth offense; and (2) misdemeanor eluding a police officer. He contended the trial court abused its discretion in denying defense counsel the opportunity to ask a question of potential jurors at voir dire, that it made multiple errors on evidentiary rulings, and that it improperly selected a jury foreperson. He also argued the eluding conviction should have been vacated because he did not violate the statute’s plain terms. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion on any of the evidentiary or jury issues but agreed with defendant that he did not elude law enforcement as charged. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the DUI conviction and vacated the eluding conviction. View "Vermont v. Colehamer" on Justia Law

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In 2018, the State charged defendant Larry Labrecque with multiple counts of sexual assault, including the aggravated sexual assault of a child. He remained held without bail through his trial, which commenced on May 9, 2022. A total of approximately 45.5 months passed between charging and trial. In that time, the parties engaged in ample motion practice, "and a global pandemic occurred." At a May 12, 2020 status conference, defense counsel argued that due process required defendant’s release, citing to his nearly 2-year detention pending trial and “the judiciary’s inability to honor [his] speedy-trial rights.” On October 20, 2020, defendant moved to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial, which was denied on December 7. The criminal division determined that the length of delay, approximately 28 months at the time, was sufficient to trigger full consideration of the balancing test set forth in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), but that the factors together did not weigh in favor of finding a speedy-trial violation. Defendant would file multiple motions for bail review in 2021; no due-process violations were found, and his pretrial detention continued. In November 2021, the criminal division scheduled a jury draw for January 10, 2022. On January 4, 2022, the criminal division granted defendant’s unopposed motion to continue the trial and rescheduled the trial to start on February 8, 2022. On February 8, the criminal division continued the trial because a necessary State witness was unavailable. Defendant declined to waive his Confrontation Clause rights to allow the witness to testify remotely. A jury was drawn on May 5, 2022 and the trial was held from May 9 to May 13. The jury returned a guilty verdict on the lesser-included charge of sexual assault. On August 5, defendant moved for judgment of acquittal in which his sole argument was that his speedy-trial right had been violated. The criminal division concluded that defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated and dismissed the case against him with prejudice. Considering all the Barker factors, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that defendant was not deprived of his right to a speedy trial and reversed the criminal division's dismissal. View "Vermont v. Labrecque" on Justia Law