Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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Defendant Ellie May Morse was charged with simple assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest as a result of her encounter with law enforcement officers outside a motel in Bennington in August 2014. Police were called when one of defendant's teenaged sons got into an argument with the manager of the motel. As the first two officers approached the Fife and Drum, defendant, who had been outside smoking a cigarette, stepped in front of them to block them from going into the motel. Defendant then began moving toward the first pair of officers, who had their backs turned to her. As one of the second two officers tried to move past her, she raised her arm, and the officer reacted by grabbing her arm, spinning her around, and attempting to handcuff her. Defendant struggled and stiffened her arms, and her cigarette came in contact with the officer’s left forearm. Defendant was then placed under arrest. Defendant was convicted by jury of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and acquitted of simple assault. After the verdict, defendant challenged her convictions through motions for a new trial and judgment of acquittal, alleging the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions. Defendant appealed the denial of those motions. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Morse" on Justia Law

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In October 2017, University of Vermont (“UVM”) Police Services, a fully-certified police agency, issued a criminal citation for disorderly conduct to an adult, W.R. The Criminal Division of the Superior Court found no probable cause for the charge and closed the case. Although the case was closed, it garnered significant public attention. In 2018, petitioner Jacob Oblak requested a copy of the affidavit of probable cause from UVM Police Services pursuant to Vermont’s Access to Public Records Act (“the PRA”). UVM Police Services denied access, stating that the “incident remain[ed] an open investigation within UVM Police Services, and the Superior Court, by not finding probable cause, has sealed all records related to possible charges asserted to date.” Petitioner exhausted his administrative remedies and appealed the denial to the Civil Division. In his complaint, petitioner asked the court to: declare that the affidavit of probable cause was a public record and was not subject to the exemptions found in the PRA; order UVM Police Services to release the affidavit in its entirety or in redacted form; and award him costs and attorney’s fees. UVM Police Services moved to dismiss. The Civil Division of the Superior Court upheld the denial of petitioner’s request and dismissed his complaint. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that not only was the record kept by UVM Police Services, but petitioner also requested the record directly from the agency. That UVM Police Services also filed the record with the court did not change its status as an agency record. “The affidavit was prepared by UVM Police Services in the course of public agency business. It is best characterized as a police arrest record. . . . the public has a right to access the affidavit of probable cause because it is an agency record . . . that does not qualify as confidential under the PRA.” View "Oblak v. University of Vermont Police Services" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jeffrey Ray appealed the twenty years to life sentence he received for second-degree murder, which was imposed after a contested sentencing hearing following a plea agreement reducing the charge from first-degree murder. On appeal, he argued the sentencing court erred in finding the victim, Richard Vreeland, to be “particularly vulnerable” based solely on his being unarmed and within shooting range of defendant. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. View "Vermont v. Ray" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of an inquest convened to investigate an incident in which police fatally shot a suspected bank robber after a standoff near Montpelier High School in Vermont. The day after the shooting, the State applied to open the inquest. The same day, the State served a subpoena on WCAX-TV, a station of appellant Gray Television, Inc., requiring that the station produce all of its unedited video recordings of the incident. Appellant moved to quash the subpoena, citing 12 V.S.A. 1615, a statute enacted in 2017 that protected journalists from compelled disclosure of information. At the beginning of the court’s hearing on the motion, the State requested that the proceedings be closed, arguing that inquests were secret, investigatory proceedings. The trial court agreed and excluded the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion. On February 16, 2018, following the hearing, the court issued a written decision granting the motion to quash. This was the first court decision interpreting section 1615 since its enactment. On its own initiative, and in light of its ruling excluding the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion, the trial court noted, “[i]nasmuch as this is an ongoing inquest this decision shall remain under seal, as shall the entire inquest file, and shall not be available to the public unless and until the inquest has concluded with indictments or informations.” The pivotal question presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this case was whether a trial-court order granting a motion to quash a subpoena issued in the context of an inquest was categorically exempt from public disclosure. The Supreme Court held the order was a public record presumptively subject to disclosure under the Rules for Public Access to Court Records, and concluded that there was no basis for sealing the record in this case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s denial of appellant Gray Television, Inc.’s motion to unseal the order. View "In re VSP-TK / 1-16-18 Shooting (Gray Television, Inc., Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Following an investigatory stop, defendants Wesley Haynes, Tristan Harris and Dennis Magoon, were all charged in different dockets with possession of heroin and defendant Magoon was charged with possession of a concealed weapon while committing a felony. In November 2018, defendants moved to suppress evidence. Defendants moved for reconsideration of the Vermont Supreme Court’s dismissal of their interlocutory appeals because defendants had not demonstrated why they could not seek review by entering a conditional guilty plea. Defendants argued they should not be required to enter a conditional guilty plea instead of seeking interlocutory review. The Supreme Court agreed, concluding a defendant is not required to demonstrate that a conditional guilty plea is not practicable or available before seeking interlocutory review. "A defendant in a criminal action may seek interlocutory review if the requirements of Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 5 are met." In this case, because the criminal division did not explain the basis for granting interlocutory appeal, th Supreme Court dismissed the interlocutory appeals without prejudice to defendants refiling after the trial court issued a decision. View "Vermont v. Haynes" on Justia Law

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Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law

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This case raised a facial challenge to Vermont’s statute banning disclosure of nonconsensual pornography. “Revenge porn” was a popular label describing a subset of nonconsensual pornography published for vengeful purposes. “Nonconsensual pornography” was defined generally as “distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent.” Vermont’s law, enacted in 2015, made it a crime punishable by not more than two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $2,000 or both to “knowingly disclose a visual image of an identifiable person who is nude or who is engaged in sexual conduct, without his or her consent, with the intent to harm, harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce the person depicted, and the disclosure would cause a reasonable person to suffer harm.” In late 2015, defendant was charged by information with violating the statute. The complainant contacted police after she discovered that someone had posted naked pictures of her on a Facebook account belonging to Anthony Coon and “tagged” her in the picture. Complainant told police that she had taken naked pictures of herself and sent them to Coon through Facebook Messenger. She advised that the pictures had been sent privately so that no one else could view them. Defendant Rebekah VanBuren admitted to the officer that she saw complainant’s pictures on Coon’s Facebook account and that she posted them on Facebook using Coon’s account. A judge found probable cause for the charge against defendant in December 2015. In February 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss. She argued that 13 V.S.A. 2606 violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it restricted protected speech and it could not survive strict scrutiny. Defendant also asserted that complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy because she took the pictures herself and messaged them to Coon without any promise on his part to keep the pictures private. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the statute was constitutional on its face, but the State did not show the images were not distributed by the person depicted in a manner that undermined any reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore the trial court was justified in dismissing the State’s charge against defendant. As the State acknowledged in its briefing, “it is difficult to see how a complainant would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in pictures sent to a stranger.” But the Court found the State did not present evidence to demonstrate that, in contrast to a stranger, Coon had a relationship with complainant of a sufficiently intimate or confidential nature that she could reasonably assume that he would not share the photos she sent with others. Nor did it offer evidence of any promise by Coon, or even an express request by complainant, to keep the photos confidential. The State stipulated that complainant and Coon were not in a relationship at the time complainant sent the pictures. Therefore, no evidence was presented to permit a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the photos she sent. View "Vermont v. VanBuren" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant James Ingerson sued the Department of Corrections (DOC) for negligence in investigating allegations that plaintiff was being sexually exploited by a DOC employee while he was an inmate at a DOC correctional facility. The trial court granted summary judgment to the State, holding that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the discretionary function exception to the Vermont Tort Claims Act (VTCA), 12 V.S.A. 5601(e)(1). Plaintiff appealed the summary judgment ruling to this Court. Finding no error, however, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Ingerson v. Pallito" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jeffrey-Michael Brandt was an inmate in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC). He filed this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting defendants (DOC officials) from interfering with his mail correspondence. The parties had previously entered into a Stipulation and Agreement of Dismissal (the Stipulation) in which DOC agreed not to prohibit plaintiff’s correspondence with other inmates not in the custody of DOC on the basis that this would violate 28 V.S.A. 802 and VTDOC Directive 409.5. However, plaintiff was prevented from corresponding with an inmate in another jurisdiction’s custody when he was housed in a state-run Pennsylvania facility, subject to the Interstate Corrections Compact (ICC). The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion seeking to be transferred to a non-ICC facility where the Stipulation would be enforced. Yet, during this appeal defendants transferred plaintiff to a non-ICC facility in Mississippi. The Vermont Supreme Court remanded this matter for a hearing to determine whether plaintiff’s mail correspondence privileges were restricted in Mississippi, and, if so, to what extent and on what basis they were restricted. View "Jeffrey-Michael Brandt" on Justia Law

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In December 2015, Vemont charged defendant Jeremy Fischer with sexual assault of a minor based on an allegation that defendant raped the complainant. Defendant testified at trial. He confirmed he was with the complainant on the evening of the alleged assault. On cross-examination, the State asked defendant, “And you mentioned that [the complainant] was trying to nuzzle with you, you were feeling uncomfortable, and that she pursued you, correct?” Defendant answered, “Correct.” The State then asked, “And you didn’t tell Detective Tallmadge any of that during your interview with him, did you?” Defendant replied, “I did not.” Defendant also confirmed that he had been convicted of providing false information to a police officer in 2016. The State’s closing arguments raised defendant’s failure to tell Detective Tallmadge that the complainant tried to pursue him. Defendant appealed his ultimate conviction, arguing the trial court violated his due process rights by allowing the State to impermissibly comment on his silence. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that under the facts of this case, commenting on defendant's omissions did not raise the concerns of fundamental fairness and due process present in the controlling caselaw, Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976). The Court determined defendant chose to respond to each of the detective’s questions and did not refuse to answer any specific questions. In this situation, the Court concluded defendant could not claim a due process violation. As such, the Supreme Court found no errors and therefore affirmed. View "Vermont v. Fischer" on Justia Law