Lawyers for the state of Vermont and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont are planning to enter mediation over the summer to resolve the case of a black man who said a Vermont State Police Trooper stopped him illegally in 2014 in Wallingford.
Assistant Attorney General David Groff with Lia Ernst and Jay Diaz, staff attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont appeared by phone in Rutland civil court on Thursday to provide an update on the case that had been sent back for reconsideration by the Vermont Supreme Court in January.
In September 2014, Gregory Zullo, 25, filed a complaint against the state because of a March 6, 2014, stop on Route 7 by Trooper Lewis Hatch.
This week, Judge Samuel Hoar pointed out the attorneys had spoken in February about the case. At the time, the attorneys asked for time to “explore a settlement,” Hoar said.
Groff said the attorneys were scheduled to meet with mediator James Spink, who is based in Burlington, on June 20.
“Hopefully, we can come to a resolution that everyone is OK with,” Groff said.
Hoar said an update would be scheduled for early July. If an agreement has already been reached, the information will be filed with the court.
“If we get something advising that the parties have reached a resolution, we’ll take it off and then anticipate paperwork,” Hoar said.
Hatch stopped Zullo because his registration sticker was partially obscured by snow but he said he noticed a faint smell of marijuana during the stop.
He ordered Zullo out of the car. Zullo allowed Hatch to search him but not his car. Hatch seized the car so it could be searched.
While Hatch would not drive Zullo back to Rutland, he offered to take him to a service station or call someone to give Zullo a ride, but Zullo declined and walked back to Rutland.
In 2016, Hatch was dismissed from the Vermont State Police.
Zullo’s lawsuit argues that his rights had been violated because of the stop and the order to leave the car as well as the search and seizure of the car.
Both Zullo’s attorneys and the state asked the civil court for an order of summary judgment. The court ruled in favor of the state.
But in January, the Vermont Supreme Court, in a 50-page decision, overturned the civil court decision and found the stop and seizure of Zullo’s care violated Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution, which protects Vermonters from unreasonable search and seizure.
In a press release from January, Ernst, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, called the decision a “major victory for all Vermonters, but especially for Vermonters of color like … Zullo.”
“Police have had enormous discretion to stop and search motorists, including for erroneous or pretextual reasons and on the basis of implicit or explicit bias. In ruling that police can be liable for such acts, this decision sends a clear message — no one is above the law and if police make bad stops, they can and will be held accountable,” Ernst said.
On Thursday, Ernst said the Vermont Supreme Court decision gave Zullo the chance to proceed with his claims about the stop and the seizure of the car.
Ernst said Zullo is not requesting a specific dollar amount from the state but the initial complaint asked for damages for the violations of Zullo’s rights, compensation for Zullo’s costs and “any other relief as it deems necessary.”
Ernst said there had been discussions, that were ultimately unsuccessful, about policy changes along with damages.
“Typically when we’re looking to resolve a case, we are looking to ensure that that conduct that caused us to bring the case isn’t repeated and to get some measure of justice for our client,” she said.