Zullo, Greg

Gregory Zullo poses for a photograph outside his home in Rutland on Friday afternoon.

Vermont will pay a black man, who was the victim of an “unreasonable stop and seizure” in Wallingford in 2014, at least $50,000 after reaching a settlement in what the the ACLU of Vermont described as a “racial profiling” lawsuit.

Gregory Zullo, 27, of Rutland, was stopped by Trooper Lewis Hatch of the Vermont State Police in Wallingford in March 2014. At the time of the stop, Zullo was 21.

Hatch was fired in January 2016.

Zullo filed a civil lawsuit, arguing his rights had been violated, against the state in September 2014. The civil court ruled in favor of the state, but in January 2019, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of Zullo and sent the case back to the civil court to be heard again.

The settlement announced Thursday evening resolves the case.

On Friday, Zullo said he couldn’t discuss the settlement in depth.

“I have to say I’m actually pretty surprised and pretty happy with the way it turned out. I think the Vermont State Police, they got what they wanted. I’m happy with how everything turned out on my end. The figure (amount of the settlement) it feels like a really good apology,” he said.

Lia Ernst, the ACLU of Vermont staff attorney who argued the case at the Vermont Supreme Court in May 2018, said Zullo’s was a landmark case because it established precedent that the state can be held responsible and sued for damages based on the actions of a state employee.

“That’s exactly why Mr. Zullo brought this case. He brought it not just to vindicate his own rights and stand up for his own rights but to stand up for all Vermonters and, in particular, for Vermonters of color, who are disproportionately stopped, searched and seized by Vermont police as years of data show time and again,” Ernst said.

The settlement is described in a short filing:

“To resolve Gregory Zullo’s claim arising from the unreasonable stop and seizure conducted by former Trooper Lewis Hatch, the State of Vermont agrees to provide Mr. Zullo $50,000 and all costs of mediation. Mr. Zullo acknowledges the Vermont State Police’s longstanding commitment to fair and impartial policing and in exchange for the relief specified above, Gregory Zullo shall execute a general release of the State of Vermont.”

In a statement, Public Safety Commissioner Thomas D. Anderson said the settlement reached by Zullo and the Department of Public Safety resolves the case “in a fair manner.”

The settlement was reached Thursday after a lengthy mediation session, according to the state.

Zullo said while it was challenging to go through such a lengthy case, he was proud that the outcome was likely to help Vermonters whose rights had been infringed by law-enforcement officers.

“Hopefully, this will make certain officers a little more careful when they are doing their duties as a police officer throughout Vermont. That was one of the biggest things for me was making sure that other people wouldn’t have to go through the same thing,” Zullo said.

The ruling by the civil court in the state’s favor didn’t come as a surprise, but he pointed out the Vermont Supreme Court decision in his favor was unanimous.

“There were a lot of highs and lows. Basically, it was a roller coaster of sorts. … But I have to say, we really did change things for the better, not just for people of color in Vermont, but definitely for all Vermonters,” he said.

For Zullo, the decision by the Supreme Court justices is important not just because of the protection of civil rights but because they agreed with the ACLU’s argument that police cannot use a “faint odor of burnt marijuana” alone to establish probable cause of a criminal act.

“That helps a lot of people who otherwise would be targeted a little more often than your average Vermonter,” he said.

Ernst said the case represents new law.

“The Supreme Court ruling ensures that the state can be liable when its employees violate the (state) Constitution, which has never been held to be the case before, and it also, quite rightly, recognized that racial motivation in making policing decisions is worth a particular harm that requires redress. This case is a landmark decision that we hope Vermonters will rely on going forward in bringing cases when their constitutional rights have been violated, and particularly when they’re violated because of that person’s race,” Ernst said.

Adam Silverman, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said Friday that since the 2014 stop, though not as a direct result, Vermont State Police have overhauled and updated training policy and procedures, especially related to searches and seizures; worked to improve training at the state’s police academy and at in-service training, including a focus on addressing implicit bias; and worked to strengthen community partnerships and connections with marginalized individuals and groups.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com

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