Vermont Lawsuit Challenges Search and Seizure When Officer Claims Cannabis Odor

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A lawsuit over a vehicle search after a traffic stop based on the alleged odor of cannabis is headed to the Vermont Supreme Court after being thrown out by a lower court in May, according to a VT Digger report. The lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Gregory Zullo alleges that the Rutland resident was improperly pulled over and searched, and his vehicle illegally seized.

According to court documents outlined by the Digger, Zullo, an African-American state resident, was stopped in March 2014 by Trooper Lewis Hatch – who has since been fired – and ordered to exit his vehicle “based on the alleged odor of burnt marijuana.”

“Hatch seized Mr. Zullo unnecessarily for an hour and had Mr. Zullo’s car towed to the barracks for a search, which revealed no contraband,” the ACLU’s docketing statement states. “To retrieve his car, Mr. Zullo walked and hitch-hiked eight miles home through sub-freezing temperatures, waited several hours at the barracks, and was forced to pay a $150 fee.”

Criminal charges were never filed against Zullo. Hatch was fired for his pattern of conducting illegal searches, which usually targeted black men, Seven Days reported in May 2016, five months after he was terminated. Hatch has subsequently appealed that decision to the Vermont Labor Relations Board.

Hatch claimed that the reason for stopping Zullo was because the registration sticker affixed to his license plate was obscured by snow; however Zullo’s attorney, Lia Ernst, contends that racial profiling is to blame.

“When the alleged reason for the stop is something that nearly every vehicle driving in Vermont in winter would be in the same condition, we have to ask why stop this vehicle and not some other vehicle,” she said in the report.

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The lawsuit also challenges whether Vermont police should continue to use the “sniff test” as justification for searches as possession of 1 ounce or less of cannabis has been decriminalized in the state since 2013.

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