Prosecutor takes aim at Chittenden County traffic stops

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 2:16 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Chittenden County’s state’s attorney says her office will decline to prosecute some cases where evidence was seized during traffic stops, eliminating the opportunity for police to drum up un-related offenses.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George says she can’t control what law enforcement does or change police policy, but she can control what happens after charges are submitted. “It’s definitely been something that’s been on my radar as a prosecutor for a long time,” she said.

One of Vermont’s most progressive prosecutors is spearheading a new traffic stop policy in Chittenden County over traffic law violations that don’t endanger others. Expired inspections or registration, a broken taillight, or failure to signal a lane change are just a few. If an officer makes such a stop and then finds a reason to search a vehicle that could lead to evidence of another crime, George says her office may opt not to prosecute. “Every single case is still going to come to our office and we will review it to determine whether or not there is a significant reason or justification to continue bringing the charge,” George said.

She says the policy is driven by similar ones across the country and racial disparity data which shows how BIPOC Vermonters are pulled over and searched at a disproportionate rate.

George spoke with Vermont State Police Colonel Matthew Birmingham about the policy too. On Tuesday, Birmingham sent an internal memo telling troopers to continue to use their discretion when enforcing motor vehicle statutes. He also instructed them to continue to send cases that start with traffic stops to Sarah George’s office and he reminded troopers that their focus should be on quality enforcement actions rather than quantity.

“The less law enforcement has to be involved in these types of really low-level traffic infractions -- not crimes, but traffic infractions -- the better off they will be, and the better off we’ll all be,” George said.

George also points to data that shows traffic stops are the most common type of officer-initiated activity that results in the fatality of law enforcement officers.

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