Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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Following a jury trial, defendant Venessa Sarkisian-Kennedy was convicted of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, second offense (DUI-2), and criminal refusal of an evidentiary breath test (refusal). She appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in: (1) admitting, subject to what she contended was an ineffective limiting instruction) the results of a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test offered by the State absent scientific, foundational testimony from an expert witness; and (2) allowing the State to present evidence of her refusal to consent to a preliminary breath test (PBT) on the theory that it was relevant to consciousness of guilt. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concurred with defendant’s first contention, but not the second. The Court therefore reversed and remanded the refusal conviction and affirmed the DUI-2 conviction. View "Vermont v. Sarkisian-Kennedy" on Justia Law

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Defendant Timothy Grant was charged with one count of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, to which he pled not guilty. He was not fingerprinted or photographed before arraignment. At arraignment, the State asked the court to impose four conditions of release. The first three conditions, to which defendant did not object, were: that he come to court when directed; keep a current address and phone number on file with his attorney and the court clerk; and not engage in criminal behavior. The last condition required defendant to “report to Brattleboro PD for the taking of fingerprints and photographs.” Defendant objected to the final condition at his arraignment. The issue in this case was whether, as a matter of course, every defendant charged with a misdemeanor may be ordered to submit to fingerprinting pursuant to 20 V.S.A. 2061(d). In ordering Defendant to submit to fingerprinting, it essentially created a blanket rule authorizing fingerprinting in every misdemeanor case. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court’s action was counter to the Legislature’s direction, therefore reversing the trial court’s imposition of the condition. View "Vermont v. Grant" on Justia Law

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Defendant Andrew Stewart, Jr. pleaded guilty to assault and robbery with a deadly weapon based on allegations that during the evening of February 11, 2017, defendant held a gun to the complainant’s head in the parking lot of a restaurant, demanded her money, and took her bag, wallet, and phone. At the plea colloquy, Defendant stated, “I’m not denying I robbed anyone, sir. In my heart I know I robbed somebody. . . . Do I remember putting a gun to her head and telling her to give me money? No, sir, I do not. I don’t remember the incident.” He said that he had had sufficient time to discuss the plea agreement with his attorney and had no concerns with his attorney’s work for him. The trial court acknowledged it was “struggling somewhat with the defendant’s acknowledgement of the factual basis here.” But the court accepted defendant’s plea because defendant “repeatedly asserted” the following: the plea was voluntary; he had committed the crime and could not remember the incident only because he was intoxicated at the time; and he did not contest the State’s evidence. On appeal of his ultimate conviction, defendant argued the district court erred in denying his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Based on the trial court’s “struggle” with accepting defendant’s plea, and “given our liberal standard for granting a withdrawal of plea,” the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion in denying defendant’s motion. View "Vermont v. Stewart" on Justia Law

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B.B. was charged with aggravated assault based on allegations from August 2016. In November 2018, B.B. was 20 years old, and filed a motion for youthful-offender status based on his age in 2016 . B.B. struggled with alcohol and heroin addiction, and his residential and employment situations were “unstable.” The State opposed the motion. There was prima facie evidence that B.B. “engaged in a new violent act” while he was “under the influence of alcohol,” even though B.B. was underage and was subject to a condition of release that required him to refrain from drinking alcohol. The youthful-offender statutory scheme would have allowed, if the criminal defendant was under twenty-two years old and was at least twelve years old at the time of the alleged offense, a motion to be filed with the criminal division requesting youthful-offender status. Attaining that status would provide for the defendant to obtain a battery of counseling and rehabilitation in addition to any punishment determined by the court. Only if the court finds that public safety will be protected may the court then go on to consider the other statutory factors. Following a hearing, the trial court concluded that B.B. had not met his burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that public safety would be protected if he were granted youthful-offender status, and denied the motion. B.B. requested permission to appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, which was granted. However, finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s judgment. View "In re B.B., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Defendant Clyde Bovat was convicted of shooting a deer in violation of Vermont big-game-hunting laws and failing to immediately tag the deer. On appeal he claimed the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence allegedly obtained in violation of his constitutional right to be free from warrantless government intrusions. In the early morning hours of Thanksgiving 2017, a resident of Huntington, Vermont was awoken by a gunshot close to his home. The concerned resident called the state game warden to report a possible deer jackIng. In the course of the ensuing investigation, wardens were lead to defendant’s house. Based in part on their observations through the garage window, wardens obtained a search warrant to seize defendant’s truck and collected samples of the blood they had observed, which matched a sample from the deer at issue. They did not photograph the truck until approximately five days after the seizure, during which time the truck had been left outside in inclement weather. Due to exposure to the elements, a smaller amount of blood than originally observed was visible, and deer hair was no longer visible. Defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence obtained through the search warrant. While the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendant that his garage is within the curtilage of his home, it was unpersuaded by his remaining arguments. The Supreme Court found the wardens were conducting a legitimate police investigation, during which they observed defendant’s truck in plain view from a semiprivate area. The Court declined to address the merits of defendant’s remaining challenges and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. View "Vermont v. Bovat" on Justia Law

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Defendant Onix Fonseca-Cintron appealed his three domestic assault convictions. He argued the trial court erred in failing to provide the jury with a self-defense instruction. He also argued the underlying conduct supported only one criminal offense, not three. The State charged defendant with three counts of domestic assault: (1) first-degree aggravated domestic assault based on defendant’s attempt to strangle complainant; (2) first-degree aggravated domestic assault with a weapon based on defendant’s hitting the complainant with a sheathed machete and threatening to kill her; and (3) domestic assault based on defendant’s dragging complainant by the hair. The jury found defendant guilty on all three counts. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Fonseca-Cintron" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Christopher Sullivan appeals a trial court order granting summary judgment to the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) on his Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 75 petition challenging the DOC’s decision to deny him reintegration furlough. Petitioner was convicted of one count of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor with death resulting, and one count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. While serving a resulting incarcerative sentence, he sought Civil Rule 75 review of the DOC’s decision to deny him reintegration furlough and earned time toward such furlough, arguing that this denial was predicated on unlawful consideration of his convictions as indicative of a history of violent behavior The Vermont Supreme Court found the DOC could authorize reintegration furlough or an award of earned time toward reintegration furlough only where these decisions were made in accordance with rules promulgated by the DOC pursuant to the grant of authority at 28 V.S.A. 808c(c). During the pendency of this appeal, the DOC moved to dismiss the case as moot, contending that, because petitioner reached his minimum sentence on August 5, 2019, and was paroled on August 14, 2019, the requested relief could no longer be granted. Petitioner responded that the DOC failed to prove that this situation will not reoccur, observing that he could be reincarcerated and subsequently denied furlough on the basis of the same two convictions, which would remain on his record. In the alternative, he urged the Supreme Court to adopt a public-interest exception to the mootness doctrine. The Supreme Court concluded the case was moot, declined to adopt such an exception, and dismissed. View "Sullivan v. Menard" on Justia Law

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Defendant Paul Alzaga appealed his conviction for DUI refusal. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the trial court erred in admitting testimony indicating that defendant had refused to take a preliminary breath test (PBT) and regarding the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test; (2) the court committed plain error in instructing the jury and designing the jury verdict form; and (3) the conviction was invalid because the jury did not enter a verdict. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Alzaga" on Justia Law

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Petitioner, Miles Otis Dow, Jr., filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) with the Windham Civil Division. He was convicted of aggravated assault stemming from events that occurred in March 2014. In March 2017, petitioner filed his initial PCR petition, alleging violations of his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He asked that the PCR court vacate and set aside the trial court judgment against him or, in the alternative, grant a new trial or correct the sentence. Upon receiving the initial PCR petition, assigned counsel reviewed it and declined assignment of the case pursuant to 12 V.S.A. 5233(a)(3), indicating that “further representation of [petitioner] would require an attorney to advance frivolous claims.” Petitioner filed an amended PCR petition in January 2018, which was the petition at issue now before the Vermont Supreme Court. The amended petition sought relief based on several grounds. Most notably, petitioner added new claims of ineffective assistance of counsel because petitioner’s attorney allegedly: (1) failed to object to the trial court’s grant of the State’s motion for a mistrial, thereby failing to preserve the issue for appeal to this Court; and (2) failed to reasonably and effectively prepare for sentencing by failing to investigate petitioner’s background and mitigating evidence regarding petitioner’s mental health or his education, employment, family, financial, and health records. In January 2018, the PCR court issued an entry order acknowledging the amended petition, which “provide[d] additional elaboration” for the claims in the initial petition, and stated that petitioner would be treated as pro se unless he hired counsel because the Defender General’s Office had already found the claims raised in the initial petition to be meritless. In February 2018, petitioner filed a motion for reassignment of counsel. His request for counsel was denied by order in March 2018 “for the same reasons as stated” in the January entry order. Thereafter, petitioner proceeded pro se. The State filed a motion for summary judgment, which the PCR court granted. Petitioner appealed the PCR court’s dismissal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the PCR court erred in granting the State’s motion for summary judgment because it failed to properly address the claims petitioner raised in his amended petition. The Supreme Court concurred, reversed and remanded for the PCR court to conduct further proceedings. View "In re Miles Otis Dow, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant Stephanie Berard appealed a trial court’s denial of her motion for judgment of acquittal following her conviction for impeding or hindering a police officer. Trooper Wayne Godfrey of the Vermont State Police directed defendant to pull over her car after he observed her committing traffic violations. Defendant asked him to call another officer because she recognized him as someone she had interacted with on a previous occasion, when he “maced” her. The officer instructed defendant to provide him with her driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Defendant replied that she had the requested documents in her car, but she would not provide them to him and asked him to call another officer. Trooper Godfrey continued to instruct defendant to provide the documents, and defendant refused to provide them to him. During their exchange, Trooper Godfrey called for another officer. The exchange proceeded for around six minutes, until the second officer arrived. Trooper Godfrey estimated at trial that he asked for defendant’s information around twenty-two times within those six minutes and said her delay in producing the documents was unreasonable. As Trooper Godfrey testified and the video shows, defendant was “[c]ombative” and “uncooperative” and her voice was “escalated and raised.” When the second officer arrived, defendant retrieved the documents and extended them out of the car. At that point, Trooper Godfrey grabbed defendant’s arm, physically pulled her out of the car, and arrested defendant for impeding a law enforcement officer. A jury found defendant guilty. In denying her motion for judgment of acquittal, the trial court reasoned defendant had no legal right to refuse to provide the documents, and it had no grounds to disturb the jury's conclusion that defendant's refusal hindered the officer. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the State did not prove that defendant’s refusal to provide the documents was itself a criminal act; (2) defendant did not hinder the officer in investigating the alleged traffic infractions; and (3) extending criminal liability to failure to provide a driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance would render the impeding-officer statute unconstitutionally vague. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded there was no question defendant's refusal was unlawful. However, when read broadly, the impeding-officer statute appeared to criminalize any unlawful action, no matter how slight or brief, that for any moment delays or interferes with the lawful execution of an officer’s duties. "Such a broad sweep is inconsistent with the text of [13 V.S.A. section] 3001 as a whole." The Court analyzed lesser penalties given for related conduct and could not conclude the Legislature intended section 3001 to include a civil violation of the motor vehicle code as a hindering action. Accordingly, the Court interpreted section 3001 narrowly and held that a civil violation of the motor vehicle code, on its own, could not provide the basis for an impeding-officer offense, even when that violation was intentional. View "Vermont v. Berard" on Justia Law