Breer rearrest prompts concern about habitual offender law

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BARRE, Vt. (WCAX) One of Vermont's most notorious criminals is back in jail after police say he kidnapped and assaulted his girlfriend.

Harley Breer/File

Harley Breer, 49, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of aggravated domestic assault, kidnapping and unlawful restraint in the second degree.

Court documents say on Monday, Breer and the woman went out looking for bears. Breer allegedly became angry and forced the woman's head into the center console of the truck the two were riding in. The documents claim Breer would not let the woman out of the vehicle. The two eventually returned to the home they share. Breer went to sleep and the woman escaped and hid in the bushes. Police say Breer then drove down a road looking for her, yelling for her out the window, leading to someone tipping off police.

Breer said he was a changed man in 2017.

"Some of it's maturity, some of it's I've grown up. But today, I find myself looking at different things like how I became a grandfather in the last five years. So, I've got a different set of priorities," Breer told a judge in May 2017.

Back then, he was facing life in prison for allegedly kidnapping and beating a woman. A plea deal struck by former State's Attorney Scott Williams saved Breer from life in prison.

Vermont has a "habitual criminal" law where if you commit three felonies, the fourth means the possibility of life in prison. Lawmakers now say that might need some tweaking.

"It does seem that this particular situation, the violence and the fact that it's always violence against woman-- the three strikes and you're out in that regard definitely apply here," said Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre Town, who represents the area in Washington County where many of Breer's crimes have happened. "He's got a fairly long history here, but like I said earlier, I'm not sure all felonies are created equal and I think there needs to be some discussion."

Vermont Sen. Dick Sears, D- Bennington, is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and says the law hasn't had a serious review in some time.

"Sometimes when you pass laws like that, it's over 20 years old, it's probably time to revisit it to make sure that the people that the Legislature intended to be caught up as violent career criminals are actually part of the habitual offender law," he said.

Gov. Phil Scott agreed with that assessment Friday.

"Obviously we can always do better and this is an example of where we might want to take another look at this," said Scott, R-Vermont.

LaClair does not recall the last time Vermont's habitual offender law was used.

"We'll see," he said. "This might be the bellwether situation here."

In a statement Thursday night, Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault said if Breer's probation is revoked, he would be sentenced to 20-45 years.

Following up on the statement Thursday, Thibault said: "The habitual offender enhancement overrides the statutory maximum punishment for felony offenses to entail up to life imprisonment. However, habitual offender enhancement does not guarantee that outcome in any case. Prosecutors carefully consider whether filing a case with such an enhancement is appropriate and consistent with the interests of justice.

"The matter of State v. Breer, Docket No. 1524-12-11 Wncr, resolved last May, was filed with habitual offender enhancement. The facts and circumstances of the new case and the history of the Defendant led the State to file this enhancement again.

"Ultimately, the strength of a case and weight of evidence guide case resolutions - habitual offender enhancement does not change the facts of a case, rather it is a tool that may further enhance public safety after a conviction."

Breer is in jail for now but will be in court next week.