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Vermont pays $50K to settle lawsuit over illegal traffic stop

(WCAX)
Published: Jun. 21, 2019 at 6:05 AM EDT
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Vermont authorities have reached a big settlement over a 2014 state police traffic stop that the ACLU says sends a clear message that racial profiling won't be tolerated.

State police dashcam video obtained by the ACLU of Vermont shows the traffic stop in question. It happened on March 6, 2014 in Wallingford. Then-Trooper Lewis Hatch pulls over Gregory Zullo's car.

The search lasts for several minutes. As another trooper talks to Zullo, Hatch phones in from the cruiser to say he smelled marijuana. "I can smell the weed and he won't let me search it, so I'm just going to take it," Zullo tells a dispatcher, also saying why he initially pulled the car over. "He had a bunch of snow on his back license plate. Couldn't see it, couldn't see the registration sticker."

The ACLU says that wasn't a traffic violation at the time though. And the trooper says because Zullo won't let him search the car, he wants to seize it. "Yeah, he let me search him, but he won't let me search the car. He kept wanting to go back to his car and I had to grab him. I'm like, 'Listen, if you try to go in your car, I'm going to detain you, so stop trying to get your stuff,'" Zullo said. The tow truck later arrives and takes Zullo's car away.

But a few months later the ACLU filed a lawsuit against state police, saying the stop was racial profiling because Zullo is black. They argued Hatch's actions violated Zullo's rights under Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution, which prohibits warrantless searches and seizures.

Hatch was fired in 2016 in the wake of two civil lawsuits -- including Zullo's -- over alleged illegal drug searches.

Then this January the Vermont Supreme Court sided with Zullo, ruling that the faint odor of marijuana was not enough probable cause.

Thursday, state police settled with Zullo for $50,000. In the settlement, Zullo acknowledged VSP's longstanding commitment to fair and impartial policing.

In a statement Zullo said: "I wanted to be sure what happened to me did not happen to anyone else -- especially people of color. My hope is that it will make police and others stop and think about how their own bias plays into the decisions they make, particularly when it impacts another person's life."

State police released new data this week, saying that they have reduced racial disparity when it comes to traffic stops. In 2014 black drivers were five percent more likely to be searched than white drivers. The new data shows they are now within a percent. But state police said there's still work to do to achieve equality and that they're committed to making that happen.