BURLINGTON – A violent attack in the heart of downtown this week prompted Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo to renew calls for reforms to Vermont’s system of civil violations.
A brawl in City Hall Park on Tuesday night spilled onto the corner of Church and Main streets, and culminated with one man slashing another’s throat, according to police.
Del Pozo said those involved were drinking alcohol, and that many incidents of violence or inappropriate and threatening behavior in Burlington’s civic spaces stem from public intoxication.
Currently, public drunkenness, public urination, smoking marijuana in public or having an open container of alcohol are all civil violations, resulting in tickets that carry a monetary fine.
Many people who are frequently drinking or smoking pot in City Hall Park or along the Church Street Marketplace can’t pay those fines, with some accumulating more than 100 such tickets, the vast majority of which go unpaid, del Pozo said.
When that occurs, the Vermont Judicial Bureau can send an account to collections, and nonpayment could damage a person’s credit score. However, that’s not a deterrent to the impoverished and largely transient population who are routinely intoxicated downtown, del Pozo said.
“The civil system works in most cases, but if you don’t care about your credit score, or you’re entrenched in that behavior, it’s not effective,” the chief said. “Our cops have realized that in many cases writing the ticket is a fruitless act and have stopped writing them.”
Figures on the police department website show a precipitous drop in tickets issued for such violations in the last year.
Disorderly conduct is a crime in Vermont that carries a sentence of up to 60 days in prison and up to $500 in fines. Fighting or violent and threatening behavior, using obscene or abusive language or making unreasonable noise are all covered by the statute.
However, del Pozo said he would like his officers to have a way to prevent people who are frequently intoxicated downtown from becoming disorderly in the first place. Currently, officers can’t remove someone who is drinking, he said, all they can do is write them a ticket.
“We need some way for the most intractable cases of this kind of behavior to have the appropriate level of criminal sanction,” he said.
Del Pozo said he plans to work with the city attorney, the Chittenden County state’s attorney and the judiciary to craft an ordinance that would, after a person has accumulated a dozen unpaid civil violations of certain type, make their next infraction a low-level crime.
Jay Diaz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said that instead of criminalizing people’s behavior, the city should focus on doing more to address issues of poverty, substance abuse and mental illness, which are the root cause of much of that behavior.
“Perhaps the better solution would be to address those issue proactively and not funnel people into the criminal justice system where we know those issues cannot and will not be adequately addressed,” Diaz said.
The problem for the police, who are attempting to address legitimate quality of life concerns, according to Diaz, is that they have a limited set of tools with which to do so.
“I know it’s cliche at this point, but when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail,” Diaz said of the chief’s desire to arrest some people for public intoxication.
Del Pozo said he also wanted to be clear that what he’s proposing would not be akin to debtors’ prison. Instead, the ordinance would wipe away the person’s debt from tickets they’ve been issued after they reach a dozen — money that’s not being collected now in most cases — and replace it with a short jail sentence or court diversion program at a judge’s discretion, he said.
Diaz said the chief is trying to have it both ways on that score. “You can’t jail people for not paying certain debts and not call it debtors’ prison,” he said.
Still, the chief said he is adamant that the reforms he’s proposing can improve quality of life without impinging on constitutionally protected rights.
“I’m insisting that a community has a right to say that if you’re going to engage in certain behaviors you have to do it in way that doesn’t spread harm to your neighbors,” he said.
Tuesday’s stabbing leaves one person in the ICU
In the altercation Tuesday night, a fight involving three men who frequent the park and the nearby intersection of Church and Main streets escalated when one pulled out an “edged weapon.”
Conner Lucas, 28, is accused of using that weapon to “cut the throat of the primary victim,” according to police. Another man was cut on the hand while attempting to intervene. Lucas pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault with a weapon Wednesday in Chittenden County Superior Court. He’s being held without bail.
The victim was taken to the UVM Medical Center with a severed vein in his neck. The victim was in stable condition as of Wednesday and had been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Lucas, who told police he is homeless, has a long criminal record in Vermont, with arrests for aggravated assault and domestic assault. He is currently awaiting sentencing for domestic assault and violating the conditions of his release. Lucas was out of custody on conditional release again Tuesday when the fight occurred.
With the exception of Lucas and the man who is now in the ICU, del Pozo said all of those present for or involved in Tuesday’s violent incident who are City Hall Park regulars were back the following day — drinking alcohol again.
“They came up to me and shook my hand. They were all polite and courteous, and they even acknowledged that things had gotten out of hand, but I could also smell the booze,” he said.
The stabbing took place just blocks from where another homeless man, Louis Fortier, allegedly stabbed and killed Richard Medina on Church Street in March. In that case, Fortier is not alleged to have been intoxicated and a judge has since found him incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness.
In a separate incident Thursday evening, a domestic dispute between two men outside 184 Church St. led to a violent confrontation initially reported as a stabbing. Police later determined the injury was accidental.
Daniel Leary, 29, was arrested for domestic assault. He is also being charged with unlawful mischief and disorderly conduct for reportedly damaging a police car’s window and spitting at reporters on the scene.
Leary was held on $5,000 bail and was expected to be arraigned in Chittenden County Superior Court on Thursday.
Del Pozo said he did not believe either alcohol or other drugs was the immediate cause of the domestic dispute.