Plea deal raises query of AG's role
By Brent Curtis
Herald Staff | September 13,2008
The Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer in the state but it's unclear whether William Sorrell or his office have any say or discretion to intervene on cases handled by county state's attorneys.
The question of authority has significant overtones for a recent plea deal in Rutland which has stirred a public outcry from observers and even critical remarks about the prosecution in the case from police who investigated the death of 52-year-old Stewart Dickson.
For 13 months, 21-year-old Bryant Garrow, of Proctor, was charged with manslaughter and two other felonies in connection with Dickson's death — which until Wednesday was described as a homicide as the result of a hit and run.
But on Wednesday, Garrow pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors — none of which link him to Dickson's death — after Rutland County State's Attorney James Mongeon told a Rutland District Court judge that he didn't have enough physical evidence to prove that Garrow drove his Jeep Wrangler into Dickson or contributed to his death.
Judge Thomas Zonay accepted Garrow's pleas and called for a pre-sentencing investigation.
End of story? Maybe or maybe not.
While the chief of the criminal division at the Attorney General's Office declined to comment beyond what is written in state statute, a pair of Vermont Law School professors said Friday that there's a chance the state's chief law enforcement officer has the jurisdiction and the authority to take over the Garrow case and, possibly, change its direction.
Cindy Maguire, chief of the criminal division at the Attorney General's Office, said Friday the state office has "concurrent jurisdiction" that allows the office to participate in any county and any case in Vermont.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the state can wrest the reins of a case from the hands of a county state's attorney who is elected by residents of each county and technically beholden to no one.
Maguire declined to talk about how far her office's authority reaches. However, she did say that during the 11 years she has served in the Attorney General's Office, the office "has not addressed that issue."
Maguire also declined to comment on the Garrow plea agreement because that case has yet to be resolved pending a sentencing hearing. She did say that she has not received any calls from Dickson's family members.
But Professors Michael Mello and Cheryl Hanna said Friday that it's possible — however unlikely — that the Attorney General's Office could have the legal strength to muscle in on the case.
Mello said the state could probably make a case for usurping authority from local prosecutors. Whether they would is another matter, however.
"It would require a particularly compelling need and reason before the Attorney General would choose to open this particular can of worms I think," Mello said.
The "can of worms" in the case is the separation of powers between the state office and the independently elected county prosecutors.
Like Pandora's Box, opening the issue could release a legal maelstrom, he said.
"They would be picking a fight that could be long, bitter and expensive," Mello said.
Hanna's line of legal thinking ran in the same direction.
"I don't even know if there is a right answer," she said. "I'm not sure there's any language in the statute (defining the Attorney General's powers) that contemplates that."
That said, Hanna said she wouldn't be surprised if the state did have the legal leeway to take a case away from a prosecutor.
But before the state office could act, she said the courts would need to agree and she said she's not sure the judiciary would want to weigh in on a case involving a separation of powers between two branches of government.
If the state were to intervene in the Garrow case, it's equally unclear whether the ratified plea deal could be revoked or new charges brought in the case.
But at first blush, Mello said he didn't think the addition of new charges would violate the legal protection from double jeopardy — being tried twice for the same crime — because Garrow's case remains open until the sentencing and because of Vermont's flexible legal system.
"In Vermont, there's almost always enough wiggle room," he said. "It drives prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges nuts how little definitive law there is here."
Contact Brent Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org.