A Vermont State Police trooper pulled over and later impounded a car in March, never charging the driver with any crime but requiring him to pay the cost of having the car towed away, a newly filed lawsuit claims.
The traffic stop, conducted by Trooper Lewis Hatch, was initiated because snow obscured a small part of the license plate, although that is not a motor vehicle offense, the lawsuit alleged.
Hatch elected to have the car impounded when he was unable to persuade the driver, Gregory Zullo, 21, of Rutland, to let him search the vehicle after Hatch claimed to smell the burnt marijuana when he first spoke to Zullo, who is black.
Hatch obtained a search warrant and later searched the car. The trooper found a grinder and a pot pipe with some marijuana residue. Under a law passed in Vermont in 2013, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is not criminal.
“We don’t want people out and about being treated like criminals because they have a small amount of marijuana,” said Dan Barrett of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped file the case against the state.
Barrett also said it was improper to stop the car on the grounds that snow was covering the registration sticker on the license plate.
“There’s no law that forbids a small amount of snow from touching a license plate,” Barrett said.
Hatch was off duty Monday and did not respond to a message seeking comment. Col. Tom L’Esperance, state police director, referred questions about the case to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan said Monday afternoon her office had just received a copy of the lawsuit and had yet to review the claim in full.
“We can’t comment on the case at this time,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, filed last week in Rutland Superior Court, when Hatch first engaged in conversation with Zullo, the trooper told Zullo he was “on patrol for drug traffickers, and that he was mainly looking for heroin.”
“Mr. Zullo is not a heroin user or trafficker, and became alarmed during his conversation with Hatch at how persistent Hatch was in alleging that Mr. Zullo was engaged in illegal activity,” the lawsuit stated.
The March 6 incident, captured on the state police cruiser’s video recorder, lasts 87 minutes and shows Hatch conducting the traffic stop and, later, Zullo exiting his car and submitting to a pat-down with his arms over his head.
Zullo, who is without a jacket, is then seen taking off each of his boots so Hatch can inspect them as a police dog is heard barking from inside the cruiser. At one point, Zullo and Hatch walk toward the passenger side of the car, and Hatch places his hands on Zullo to prevent Zullo from opening the car door.
According to the lawsuit, Zullo was seeking to get a jacket out of the vehicle. He is later allowed to retrieve the coat by a second trooper who arrived on the scene.
About 30 minutes into the traffic stop, Hatch can be heard radioing to a police dispatcher and saying he encountered the faint odor of marijuana when he first spoke with Zullo.
He then tells the dispatcher that Zullo first said he smoked pot “last night,” then altered the story and said, “two nights ago.”
“I can smell weed, but he won’t let me search, so I’m just going to take it,” Hatch is heard to say. “He let me search him, but he won’t let me search the car.”
The lawsuit stated Hatch wrote in an affidavit supporting his application for a search warrant that Zullo had a “prior arrest for drug possession.”
Records on file at Vermont Superior Court in Rutland show Zullo has no criminal convictions and no drug possession charge, a court clerk said.
The records show that Zullo was charged with misdemeanor simple assault and possession of stolen property during the past two years, but both charges were dismissed.
At the end of the traffic stop, the video shows Zullo walking away as a tow truck drives off with his car. Zullo was required to pay $150 in towing fees, he found out later.
“When Mr. Zullo asked (Hatch) why he had to pay for the tow, (Hatch) told him that the cost was Mr. Zullo’s fault for exercising his rights,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a declaration that Hatch’s actions were illegal.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Sam on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SamuelHemingway.