Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant Paul Alzaga appealed his conviction for DUI refusal. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the trial court erred in admitting testimony indicating that defendant had refused to take a preliminary breath test (PBT) and regarding the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test; (2) the court committed plain error in instructing the jury and designing the jury verdict form; and (3) the conviction was invalid because the jury did not enter a verdict. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Alzaga" on Justia Law

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Petitioner, Miles Otis Dow, Jr., filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) with the Windham Civil Division. He was convicted of aggravated assault stemming from events that occurred in March 2014. In March 2017, petitioner filed his initial PCR petition, alleging violations of his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He asked that the PCR court vacate and set aside the trial court judgment against him or, in the alternative, grant a new trial or correct the sentence. Upon receiving the initial PCR petition, assigned counsel reviewed it and declined assignment of the case pursuant to 12 V.S.A. 5233(a)(3), indicating that “further representation of [petitioner] would require an attorney to advance frivolous claims.” Petitioner filed an amended PCR petition in January 2018, which was the petition at issue now before the Vermont Supreme Court. The amended petition sought relief based on several grounds. Most notably, petitioner added new claims of ineffective assistance of counsel because petitioner’s attorney allegedly: (1) failed to object to the trial court’s grant of the State’s motion for a mistrial, thereby failing to preserve the issue for appeal to this Court; and (2) failed to reasonably and effectively prepare for sentencing by failing to investigate petitioner’s background and mitigating evidence regarding petitioner’s mental health or his education, employment, family, financial, and health records. In January 2018, the PCR court issued an entry order acknowledging the amended petition, which “provide[d] additional elaboration” for the claims in the initial petition, and stated that petitioner would be treated as pro se unless he hired counsel because the Defender General’s Office had already found the claims raised in the initial petition to be meritless. In February 2018, petitioner filed a motion for reassignment of counsel. His request for counsel was denied by order in March 2018 “for the same reasons as stated” in the January entry order. Thereafter, petitioner proceeded pro se. The State filed a motion for summary judgment, which the PCR court granted. Petitioner appealed the PCR court’s dismissal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the PCR court erred in granting the State’s motion for summary judgment because it failed to properly address the claims petitioner raised in his amended petition. The Supreme Court concurred, reversed and remanded for the PCR court to conduct further proceedings. View "In re Miles Otis Dow, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant Stephanie Berard appealed a trial court’s denial of her motion for judgment of acquittal following her conviction for impeding or hindering a police officer. Trooper Wayne Godfrey of the Vermont State Police directed defendant to pull over her car after he observed her committing traffic violations. Defendant asked him to call another officer because she recognized him as someone she had interacted with on a previous occasion, when he “maced” her. The officer instructed defendant to provide him with her driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Defendant replied that she had the requested documents in her car, but she would not provide them to him and asked him to call another officer. Trooper Godfrey continued to instruct defendant to provide the documents, and defendant refused to provide them to him. During their exchange, Trooper Godfrey called for another officer. The exchange proceeded for around six minutes, until the second officer arrived. Trooper Godfrey estimated at trial that he asked for defendant’s information around twenty-two times within those six minutes and said her delay in producing the documents was unreasonable. As Trooper Godfrey testified and the video shows, defendant was “[c]ombative” and “uncooperative” and her voice was “escalated and raised.” When the second officer arrived, defendant retrieved the documents and extended them out of the car. At that point, Trooper Godfrey grabbed defendant’s arm, physically pulled her out of the car, and arrested defendant for impeding a law enforcement officer. A jury found defendant guilty. In denying her motion for judgment of acquittal, the trial court reasoned defendant had no legal right to refuse to provide the documents, and it had no grounds to disturb the jury's conclusion that defendant's refusal hindered the officer. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the State did not prove that defendant’s refusal to provide the documents was itself a criminal act; (2) defendant did not hinder the officer in investigating the alleged traffic infractions; and (3) extending criminal liability to failure to provide a driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance would render the impeding-officer statute unconstitutionally vague. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded there was no question defendant's refusal was unlawful. However, when read broadly, the impeding-officer statute appeared to criminalize any unlawful action, no matter how slight or brief, that for any moment delays or interferes with the lawful execution of an officer’s duties. "Such a broad sweep is inconsistent with the text of [13 V.S.A. section] 3001 as a whole." The Court analyzed lesser penalties given for related conduct and could not conclude the Legislature intended section 3001 to include a civil violation of the motor vehicle code as a hindering action. Accordingly, the Court interpreted section 3001 narrowly and held that a civil violation of the motor vehicle code, on its own, could not provide the basis for an impeding-officer offense, even when that violation was intentional. View "Vermont v. Berard" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jeffrey Gay, II appealed orders orders denying his motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment in favor of the State on his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). In 2014, defendant pled no contest to obstruction of justice. As part of his plea colloquy with the sentencing court, defendant acknowledged that by changing his plea from not guilty to no contest, he was giving up his right to appeal, which he would have had if he had maintained his not-guilty plea, gone to trial, and been convicted. The court imposed a sentence that was enhanced under Vermont’s habitual-offender statute, 13 V.S.A. 11. Between 2001 and 2006, defendant was convicted of four felonies that enhanced the sentence on the obstruction-of-justice conviction. He pled guilty to two of those convictions, false pretenses and grand larceny, at one proceeding in 2004. In 2018, defendant filed his PCR petition, seeking to vacate the sentence imposed on the 2014 obstruction-of-justice conviction. He argued that he was entitled to a resentencing because his pleas to the charges of false pretenses and grand larceny in 2004 were not made knowingly and voluntarily. Specifically, he alleged that the pleas were deficient because the court failed to elicit from him an admission to the factual basis supporting each of the charges. Defendant argued that without these two prior convictions, his sentence on the obstruction-of-justice conviction should not have been enhanced. In affirming the trial court, the Vermont Supreme Court concurred defendant waived his right to challenge the legality of his underlying convictions and the imposition of an enhanced sentence when he entered a knowing and voluntary plea to obstruction of justice. View "In re Jeffrey R. Gay II" on Justia 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