Free the criminals! Vermont prosecutor won’t pursue charges from ‘non-public safety’ traffic stops

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BURLINGTON, VT – The  Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) will no longer pursue charges in cases where evidence of a crime was collected during a “non-public safety” traffic stop, according to a memo from State’s Attorney Sarah George.

George said she is dismantling the practice because non-public safety stops, which she states include offenses such as driving with a suspended license or broken brake light, disproportionately stop passengers of color:

The ultra-liberal DA’s memo states:

“The CCSAO will also apply a heightened scrutiny to all traffic stops generally, to ensure that “public safety stops” (stops involving a violation of traffic law that endangers others) are not being used as a pretext to perform searches on the drivers that this policy is designed to protect.”

The memo was released Dec. 21 and updated Jan. 7. It does not restrict police officers from pulling people over for non-public safety stops, more commonly referred to as pretext stops.

Instead, it announces that George’s office would not prosecute potential crimes that were uncovered during such a stop.

The memo states prosecutors will not pursue charges based on non-public safety traffic stops for reasons including suspected intoxicated driving and excessive speeding (defined as going more than 7 mph above the speed limit).

The memo also listed examples of public safety stops as “running through a red light” and “reckless operation of a vehicle in a way that makes the road unsafe for others.”

The Memo states:

“Any evidence stemming from the search of a driver following a stop in which there is probable cause of a public safety violation will be considered for charges, barring other discretionary policies and factors the CCSAO may want to consider.

However, if it appears that a public safety stop was made only for the purpose of ‘fishing’ for evidence of other crimes, the CCSAO may decline to proceed with charges.

“For example, the CCSAO may decline charges when an officer conducts a public safety stop, searches the vehicle based on the driver’s consent without any other legal justification, and finds evidence unrelated to the original justification for the stop.”

George argues in the memo that law enforcement as a whole is racist:

“Disproportionate treatment of people of color is a well-established pattern in the American criminal legal system. This fact is borne out in not only our rates of incarceration, but also in who we police and how we police them.

“Individuals of color are far more likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement, even though they are not any more likely to be in possession of illegal contraband than White people.”

She then went on to write that law enforcement will use these pretext stops as a tool to target minorities:

“This disproportionate policing of people of color can be seen in how traffic stops are performed as well.

A recent nationwide study of 100 million traffic stops found that black and Latinx drivers were stopped and searched at a higher rate than white drivers, despite the fact that searches of black and Latinx drivers turned up contraband at a lower rate.

In traffic stops for public safety infractions, such as a DUI, law enforcement officers appear to have very little racial bias in who they arrest.

“However, when performing discretionary non-public safety stops, law enforcement officers are far more likely to stop and search people of color. The result is the perpetuation of racial bias in our criminal legal system.”

Free the criminals! Vermont prosecutor won't pursue charges from 'non-public safety' traffic stops

To support her argument, the DA referenced a book written by Stephanie Sequino and Nancy Brooks entitled, “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont.”

It should be noted that Sequino is a professor of economics and president-elect of the International Association for Feminist Economics, which may draw her objectiveness into question.

The DA used a study mentioned in the book to claim that black Vermonters were four times more likely to be stopped by police than whites. She then went on to make other claims:

“Latinx Vermonters also were both stopped and searched at higher rates. This is in spite of the fact that searches of black and Latinx drivers resulted in lower ‘hit’ rates (the rate at which illegal contraband is found) than white or Asian drivers.

“The study concluded that ‘police search behavior is suggestive of over-searching of black and Hispanic drivers, relative to white and Asian drivers’ and that this result ‘may be due to officers having a lower threshold of evidence for black and Hispanic drivers.”

What the DA is trying to defend is that if someone is pulled over for an expired inspection sticker or failing to signal a lane change and the officer finds reason to search the vehicle that could lead to evidence of another crime, the prosecutor’s office may decide not to prosecute.

George said that every case brought by police would go through their office, but they would not prosecute if there were no significant justification for the stop:

“Every single case is still going to come to our office, and we will review it to determine whether or not there is a significant reason or justification to continue bringing the charge.”

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The DA nor the memo addressed the fact that law enforcement across the country use pretext stops to identify DUI drivers, conduct narcotics enforcement, locate wanted persons, conduct criminal investigations, and a multitude of other public safety-related purposes.

The DA claims the opposite while relying on a single study:

“There is no indication so far that non-public safety stops make communities or law enforcement safer. In the ‘vast majority’ of these stops, whether it be a vehicle or a person, law enforcement do not discover any contraband or illegally owned guns on the people they are searching.

“A study of stops by police in New York City found that investigatory stops had very little effect on reducing crime, whereas stops stemming from an articulable probable cause had the strongest association in reducing crime.”

George boasts in the memo that her new policy will even save the lives of law enforcement officers:

“Non-public safety stops are a danger to law enforcement as well, with traffic stops being the most common type of officer-initiated activity that results in the fatality of a law enforcement agent.”

South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke told The Associated Press that George’s policy is flawed and that his police will continue doing their job:

“I think it’s important for the public to understand it is still incumbent for law enforcement to do this work.

“Impaired drivers are known to fail to signal a lane change, unsafe and uninsured vehicles operate on our highways every day that aren’t inspected, stolen vehicles will often times bare registration plates that belong to other cars.”

Hinesburg Police Chief Anthony Cambridge also said the memo would not change the way his department conducts enforcement, and the DA can do whatever she wants after that:

“A violation is a violation. We’re still going to make traffic stops and do the things that we do.”

“If we can’t bring something to the state’s attorney or the state’s attorney doesn’t want to proceed with a case as a result of a traffic stop, then I certainly stand behind that. That’s their prerogative.”

Col. Matthew Birmingham, head of the Vermont State Police, issued a memo to members of his department telling them to continue doing their jobs:

“Regardless of the position outlined in the memo… Traffic enforcement is one component of the larger strategy to achieve public safety on Vermont’s highways. All members (of the state police) are expected to participate in this mission.

“Continue using appropriate individual discretion in your enforcement work.”

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