Courts & Corrections

Lawyers: Study on policing gives new grounds for bias suit

Paul Doucette
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette testifies in January at the Statehouse. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — Lawyers for an African-American man who filed a civil rights suit over a traffic stop and arrest in Bennington are pressing to reinstate claims that a federal judge dismissed in May.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont seek to restore allegations against Police Chief Paul Doucette and the town police department that were dismissed, although other elements of the suit were allowed to continue.

The motion says the judge found that the suit had insufficiently argued Shamel Alexander’s claims that the town maintained a policy of unlawful racial discrimination. Therefore the judge threw out Alexander’s claim regarding municipal liability by the town and supervisory liability by Doucette, the motion says.

But the motion should be allowed, the attorneys wrote, because “a new study was published documenting patterns of racial disparities in policing in many agencies across the state of Vermont,” including the Bennington Police Department.

Alexander sued in 2016 over his July 11, 2013, arrest on drug charges after a taxi in which he was riding was stopped in downtown Bennington.

He is represented by Lia Ernst and James Diaz of the ACLU Foundation of Vermont, and David Williams, of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams, of Burlington.

Ernst said in an email last week that the study was “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” prepared by professors at the University of Vermont and Cornell University, which was released in January. The analysis of data from 29 police agencies found that African-American or Hispanic drivers were more likely than white drivers to be stopped, searched and arrested.

After his arrest, Alexander was convicted on heroin trafficking charges and sentenced to a 10-year prison term. But on appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court tossed out the results of a search of Alexander’s possessions, during which police discovered 401 bags of heroin, and vacated his conviction in early 2016.

The suit in U.S. District Court in Rutland was originally filed against the town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department, Doucette and two officers involved in the arrest. It alleged discrimination on the basis of race and violation of Alexander’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

However, in May, Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled on motions to dismiss from the defendants’ attorneys. The judge dismissed claims of improper search against Doucette and the department but said those could be continued against the town alone.

Crawford also dismissed allegations against the individual officers involving the legality of the search and seizure that led to Alexander’s arrest. The town remains as a defendant over the search process but not concerning alleged discrimination.

The judge let stand allegations that the officers discriminated against or profiled Alexander on the basis of race and that the town through its police department had a policy or custom of unconstitutionally prolonging traffic stops.

In the motion to amend the complaint, filed Sept. 1, Alexander’s attorneys argue that the information in the traffic stop study “provides the factual matter held to be missing from the original complaint.”

Nancy Sheahan, of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, of Burlington, who is representing the defendants, declined to comment at this time, saying her response will be filed with the court.

Ernst said, “What we’ve long known from anecdotal evidence is now backed by rigorous statistical analyses: Racial profiling and racial disparities are not the result of a ‘few bad apples,’ but rather are systemic, institutional problems that require systemic, institutional remedies. That’s why it’s so important that we get at departmentwide customs and policies rather than focusing solely on individual officers.”

The suit names Cpl. Andrew Hunt, who conducted the search, and former Detective Peter Urbanowicz, who first noticed the taxi while he was off duty and called Hunt to suggest he check the vehicle — coming from Albany, New York — in connection with a police bulletin about drug sales in town that had followed a similar pattern.

Urbanowicz and Hunt are named for their roles in the stop and search, while Doucette and the department originally were named for allegedly failing to train officers in proper search techniques.

Concerning the arrest, police said drug dealers had been coming to Bennington in taxis to make deliveries in the vicinity of a restaurant on Main Street. They said local police were advised to look for a “heavyset African-American male.”

Urbanowicz said in affidavits that the driver of a cab carrying Alexander had asked him at a traffic light about the location of a Chinese restaurant.

According to court papers, Hunt pulled over the cab at Urbanowicz’s suggestion.

At one point, Hunt asked the cab driver to step outside. He said the driver indicated Alexander had come to Bennington in a cab several times before but without a destination address, asking to be taken to the restaurant. The driver let Hunt search the vehicle.

Alexander initially refused to allow a search of his belongings, Hunt stated, but agreed after Hunt called for a police drug dog to be brought.

The Vermont Supreme Court, in its ruling, said the search was improperly expanded beyond the scope of reasonable suspicion when Hunt asked the driver to get out of the cab.

Alexander, 25 at the time of his arrest, was freed in March 2016 after being incarcerated while awaiting trial and then serving time. The state later dismissed the drug charges in Superior Court.

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