Courts & Corrections

Stabbing prompts Burlington’s del Pozo to call for reforms

Brandon del Pozo
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

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.

Jay Diaz
Jay Diaz is a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

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
Conner Lucas, 28, is accused of stabbing another man on Church Street in Burlington. Burlington Police Department photo

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.

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  • Paul Richards

    ““Our cops have realized that in many cases writing the ticket is a fruitless act and have stopped writing them.””
    Burlington Vt the sanctuary, lawless city in the sanctuary state of VT. Time to crack down and enforce the laws we have and enhance the laws that need more teeth. Or we could just keep turning our heads to illegal aliens and illegal activities by all and hope that not too many stabbings happen or if they do that they won’t disturb the elite class walking the streets. Chicago is a great place to emulate.

    • Ali Bernard

      This has absolutely nothing to do with immigration.

      • Paul Richards

        Do you mean illegal immigration? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to know when the liberals policies are to suppress such information. Taxpaying citizens are not allowed to know. I’m betting it does. They have even made up a new name for it;”undocumented”, Whether we are talking about allowing illegal behavior over and over again by thugs in Burlington or allowing people to pour into the country and stay continually it all results in the same thing; a general state of lawlessness in Burlington and beyond. This now runs rampant and we are seeing the results of it on the police blotters every day. Time to get a grip on it and stop all of the pandering.

  • tedcohen

    Glad to see the police chief is finally realizing his department is comprised of cops, not (Miro’s) social workers.

  • Gary Dickinson

    Stop complaining and enjoy your utopia, Burlington.

    “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.”

    Who’s the Judge that let him walk?

    • Steve Baker

      Maybe the Judge or the ACLU should take these criminals in?

  • Neil Johnson

    This is so troubling…..

    As a state we can’t keep drugs out of high schools and prisons, which should be pretty easy if we only cared. We can’t keep people from organizing and running drugs on our prime central street of our largest city, they open a bar on the second story and operate for years. We can’t keep people from knife fights, urinating all over our largest cities town hall, drunken fights on a nightly basis.

    Go back to 17 years. None of this was happening to any degree to what is going on now. What laws have changed? What funding has increased? What have we made easier and what have we made more difficult? How have we helped people? What carrot and what stick are we using? When you look for the answers to these questions you’ll find there were actual changes that help precipitate what we are experiencing and growth in undesirable behavior.

    People find meaning in work, find satisfaction in being self sufficient. Assisted living on every aspect of life does not make people more self reliant. Building multi-million dollar suites, “shelters” and $195,000 studio apartment for homeless people, brings more homeless to the area and NO incentive to change. They have nicer places than many working two jobs, does this make sense?

    There is massive change coming our way with more drugs. We seem to adopting failed policies from big city thinking, contractors, builders, apartment owners all profit massively from the insider deals of “affordable housing”.

    We’re making ghettos, can you see it happening?

  • Elizabeth Chang

    The chief seems to be spending a lot of time posting and then debating people on social media. Maybe it’s time to hit the streets and see whats really going on in burlington. Church street is a circus and the merchants and shoppers are running for cover. Where are the cops? Where is the mayor? everyone thought the new chief would bring some nyc-toughness to the Queen City. Let’s see some results.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    I’m with you, Ron, but this: “You can’t jail people for not paying certain debts and not call it debtors’ prison,” is a little bit disingenuous.

    it’s like driving a car with a suspended license. the first time they catch you, it’s another ticket (and i s’pose they tow the car because they won’t let you drive it away). maybe the second time it’s a ticket. but eventually if you keep driving and you’re not s’pose to be driving, they will have to arrest you from that behavior because it’s dangerous.

    i think that a reasonable law can be crafted that would allow cops to arrest repeat offenders regarding public drunkeness (coupled with some degree of disorderly behavior) on something like the third or fourth offense within a specified period of time. because, if poverty “shields” some person from the deterrence of monetary fines (they just leave them unpaid) and simple unpaid fines can’t get them arrested, at least the repeated and persistent offense should be able to get them arrested. not for the unpaid fines, but for the repeated, persistent, and undeterred behavior that is contrary to public policy.

    BTW, i think both the chief and the mayor are doing good work. (not that i agree with the mayor on everything, but Miro has turned out to be an historically beneficial mayor for the city. and i think a chief of police who is a philosophy graduate and comes with NYPD experience and can stand up to the likes of Trump is pretty damn good.)

  • Steve Sims

    Wait! I’m confused… The article states, “Many people who are frequently drinking or smoking pot in City Hall Park or along the Church Street Marketplace can’t pay those fines”.
    Can’t pay? Or WON’T pay?
    Seems to me if one has funds for weed or whiskey, one has funds available for paying the fines. Failing to do so is a choice.

  • Dave Bellini

    It appears one of the most frequent crimes is “violation of conditions of release.” I’m sure there are stats on this. We see criminals caught, put in jail, then “released on conditions.” Then, frequently the same person commits new crimes while on “conditions of release.” When will lawmakers and judges acknowledge this? The effort to push everyone out of prison is to save money, NOT,,, “to further the interests of justice.” Also, new program to release more folks from prison on “home detention” should rightly concern the public. It may sound good but there are no additional personnel assigned to take on this task. Release decisions are NOT made to protect the public, they are made to save money. We see major crimes that are a direct result of the failure of the criminal justice system in Vermont. In short, Vermont is VERY soft on crime. We need to push the reset button. Or, keep a steady supply of body bags.