Search and Seizure

Vermont Cop Pulls Car Over for Nonexistent Traffic Violation, Tows It to Search for Evidence of Nonexistent Crime

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ACLU of Vermont

Last March, according to a lawsuit filed this month by the ACLU of Vermont, a state trooper pulled Gregory Zullo over for a nonexistent traffic infraction, then towed his car away so it could be searched for evidence of a nonexistent crime.

Trooper Lewis Hatch stopped Zullo, a 21-year-old resident of Rutland, on Route 7 in Wallingford around 3 p.m. on March 6, ostensibly because snow partially obscured the registration sticker on his rear license plate. But as the ACLU points out, that is not a traffic violation under Vermont law. In fact, the complaint says, "Mr. Zullo was perfectly obeying all applicable traffic laws when driving through Wallingford that day."

After detaining Zullo for an hour and unsuccessfully pressing him for permission to search the car, Hatch had it towed to the local state police barracks. In his application for a warrant to search the car, Hatch claimed to have smelled "the faint odor of burnt marijuana coming from within the vehicle." He also mentioned seeing an air freshener and eye drops in the car, and he reported that a drug-sniffing dog at the state police barracks "alerted twice on the trunk," then "climbed up on the hood." In Vermont, the ACLU argues, such evidence does not constitute probable cause to believe a search will reveal evidence of a crime, since possessing up to an ounce of marijuana is no longer a crime in that state, which last year made it a civil offense.

Hatch reported that he found a pipe and a grinder in Zullo's car, both containing "marijuana residue." (Did he find them in the trunk, to which the dog supposedly alerted? Hatch did not say.) Zullo was not charged with any offense, since there was none to charge him with. But he did not get his car back until about 10 p.m., seven hours after he was stopped. "To add insult to injury," says ACLU of Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert, "the state police made him pay $150 for the tow, as if the situation was his fault."

The ACLU is asking a Vermont Superior Court judge to find that Hatch violated the state constitution's search-and-seizure restrictions by stopping Zullo without reasonable suspicion that he had committed a traffic violation, forcing him out of his car without reasonable suspicion that he was committing a crime or posed a danger to others, and towing and searching his car without probable cause to believe it contained evidence of a crime. Zullo also wants his $150 back and reimbursement of his legal costs, plus unspecified damages for the violations of his rights.

The traffic stop was recorded by a dashcam on Hatch's SUV, which missed most of the audio because Hatch did not take the microphone with him went he went over to Zullo's car. (See video below.) According to the complaint, Hatch said he was on the lookout for heroin traffickers but conceded he did not suspect Zullo of heroin trafficking. While talking to the trooper, who repeatedly asked for permission to search the car, Zullo admitted that he might have smoked marijuana within the previous two or three days.

When Hatch checked for prior offenses, he found that Zullo had faced a minor marijuana possession charge in March 2013 that was dropped six months later. Then Hatch instructed Zullo to exit the car and informed him for the first time of the official justification for the stop: the snow on his bumper. The complaint notes that "Hatch had no difficulty reading Mr. Zullo's rear license plate or the validating sticker affixed to the rear license plate." It adds that "throughout the entire traffic stop, [Hatch] did not brush any snow off of the rear bumper of Mr. Zullo's car, or take any other measure to uncover the allegedly obscured validating sticker." 

Zullo agreed to a search of his pockets but continued to withhold consent for a search of his car. Hatch, who was joined by another trooper during the stop, persisted, threatening to impound the car and claiming the police dog in the back of his SUV had smelled something suspicious. According to the ACLU, the dog, which never left the SUV, was not even trained to detect drugs. Hatch would not let Zullo retrieve his cellphone and money from the car, and he refused to give him a ride to the state police barracks, leaving him in the cold on the side of the road, about eight miles from his home.

While waiting for the tow truck, Hatch placed a telephone call, beginning around the 32:05 mark on the video. Here are excerpts from Hatch's side of that conversation:

I can smell weed, and he won't allow me to search it, so I'm just going to take it….First he said last night. Now he's saying it was two nights ago….It's stupid, but whatever; that's what he wants to do….Uh, yeah, he had a bunch of snow on his back license plate. I couldn't see it. I couldn't see the registration sticker….I'm gonna kick him loose. He's a local Rutland kid….Yeah, he let me search him. He won't let me search the car, and then, you know, he kept wanting to go back to his car. I had to kinda grab him. And I'm like, "Listen, if you try and go to your car, I'm going to detain you, so stop trying to get your stuff."  

Hatch is right: This situation is stupid, but not for the reasons he thinks. Hatch was dismayed that Zullo obstinately insisted the cops stay out of his car and that he bizarrely seemed to think he had a right to his own possessions. To Hatch's mind, people who want to avoid the inconvenience and indignity that Zullo suffered should simply cooperate by waiving their constitutional rights. Or to put it another way: If you don't want your car towed, do what I tell you.

In Massachusetts, where voters decriminalized marijuana possession in 2008, the state's Supreme Judicial Court has followed the logic urged by the ACLU of Vermont, ruling that a whiff of pot, whether burned or fresh, does not by itself justify a car search.

[Thanks to Marc Sandhaus for the tip.]

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  1. and unsuccessfully pressing him for permission to search the car

    The ignorance of the public on display once again.

    Then again, I don’t believe that cops should be able to trick people into giving up their rights.

  2. So much for the “Free State Project”.

    1. Excellent trolling. So subtle, yet so effective.

      1. Wasteland Wanderer’s right. I wasn’t trolling, I was recovering from sedation and merely clueless.

    2. lol. Vermont is the state that voted for Bernie Sanders, Socialist Democrat.

      New Hampshire is a different State.

      1. Hollywood used Vermont State Police as the basis for Super Troopers: Altered State Police.

        There’s a reason for that.

      2. Socialist Democrat

        I prefer the term “commie rat bastard”.

        -jcr

    3. Wait, I think the Free State Project, while mildly interesting is mostly a dead end, but what does this have to do with the FSP, which, by the way is going on in NOT Vermont?

      And even if it had occurred in NH, where the FSP is taking place, why would this stop nullify the concept?

      1. The fsp is repeatedly electing people to the nh house. How is that a dead end?

      2. I noted my groggy blunder above. And it wouldn’t have “nullified” the concept, it just wouldn’t have been a hopeful sign regarding its progress.

    4. FSP is in New Hampshire, not Vermont.

  3. Let’s just all relax and smoke a doobie.

    1. OMG! See, this is why we need TOP.MEN in charge.

      You’re sitting around thinking about smoking your … doobie … and us TOP.MEN are working on keeping you alive!

      Look at this list, mister smarty pants!

      Global Warming!

      ISIS!

      Ebola!

      How do you expect us to save you from all of that when you can’t take things seriously!?

  4. And derpfee to defend insertion of the authoritah boner in three, two…

    1. Bigots be wrong as usual

      The predictive ability of the bigots here approaches zero

      It’s clear assuming the ACLU claims are true that the cOP totally violated his rights and they should win a massive lawsuit against the police

      There maybe one day far in the future when you and your ilk finally develop reading comprehension such that you can understand my posts and then you would be able to be able to have a predictive ability as to what I would say in cases like this

      I have never and will never defend misconduct by cops

      Smooches!

      1. It’s clear assuming the ACLU claims are true that the cOP totally violated his rights and they should win a massive lawsuit against the police

        I though the punishment for crimes like “false arrest” and “grand theft auto” was prison time?

        1. It is, but only for the little people.

          Cops are above the law, and they know it.

      2. So are speech to text programs so smart that they can detect sentence breaks and convert shouting into ALL CAPS, whilst simultaneously being to inept that they can’t insert full stops?

        So much for your claims to increased productivity via the computer.

        But thanks anyway. Tony was wearing thin.

      3. I have never and will never defend misconduct by cops

        How many of the crooked cops that you know have you arrested or reported, dumpy?

        Don’t even try to tell me you don’t know any.

        -jcr

  5. Assuming the ACLU account is factually accurate she most definitely should get a bitching ass lawsuit from the Concrete commandos a.k.a. state troopers

    One of the benefits to decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana is there an officer smelling marijuana does not have PC of a crime

    The most critical point to me that reason almost always misses is that unless there were lies on the affidavit it should have been clear to the judge that it was an invalid warrant affidavit and should not be signed yet it was

    Judges have absolute immunity and can completely ignore the law & as far as I have seen will never face any consequences whatsoever no matter how blatantly obvious their error is

    You have an idiot cop who is presenting an affidavit stating that he is probable cause to believe there is marijuana in the car except for the fact that probable cause to believe there is mj in the car is not PC of a crime in Vermont apparently

    Just as there should be redress against cops who do these kind of things even if it came solely from ignorance and no malice should be also be redresses against judges would sign such a warrant except there is not

    1. Assuming the ACLU account is factually accurate she most definitely should get a bitching ass lawsuit

      The problem is that these lawsuits are completely ineffective. The tax payers pick up the tab. It’s a joke.

      1. So what?

        She should still get redress

        When my union and/or I sue for redress guess who pays as well

        There are market forces at work here

        If a shitty police department constantly results in massive payouts to petitioners that creates pressure to change the police department which is within the power of various government as well as civilian bodies

        Incentives tend to work

        1. So what?

          She should still get redress

          Maybe you should lose the attitude and people will take you more seriously.

          So what? That is childish. Ok, it’s good that she maybe will get redress, but that the tax payers are fucked over once again and the problem is not addressed in a way that will diminish how much it happens in the future makes that somewhat trivial.

          1. I could not give a flying fuck if people who are so stupid that they have already demonstrated an inability of reading comprehension and zero understanding of what I say end up taking me seriously or not

            As above demonstrated by Almanian over and over again they either mistate what I have said or incorrectly predict what I will say

            I don’t predict being able to overcome such stupidity when it is combined with such commitment to ideology against all contravening evidence and is so steeped in prejudice

            This is a government of an by the people and they are in most cases the obvious target when it comes to civil liability being paid out

            I speak the truth because it has a dignity all its own I don’t intend to convince that type of person

            I don’t find ‘so what’ childish I find it on point

            Of course in most cases the taxpayers should foot the bill when there is police misconduct

            Every person has a duty to get involved with the police department in my opinion and get involved with overseeing how the police department is run

            If you don’t just as you get the government you deserve you get the police department you deserve

            Hth

            1. Of course in most cases the taxpayers should foot the bill when there is police misconduct

              A lot of people don’t fix their mistakes until said mistakes begin costing them personally. This is why having tax payers pick up tab for porky’s mistakes will ensure porky keeps making the same fucking mistakes.

              Damn baby, figure it out.

              1. A lot of Most if not all people don’t fix their mistakes until said mistakes begin costing them personally.

                ftfy

                It’s human nature. When cops face no consequences (and by that I mean no jail time, no fines, and no loss of license or job), they will keep doing this shit all day long.

                After all, how has it hurt them? It hasn’t.

                So what incentive do they have change their behavior? None.

                1. While that was always my thinking on the subject, I’ve come to revise that. I’ve found that the only way to get an out of control sheriff to heel is by informing the county (civil) attorney when sheriff department’s conduct is in violation of a specific statute, and that my client intends to sue to enforce that client’s rights. When it’s a clear issue, as in the case of jails illegally detaining undocumented immigrants and the jail telling me to fuck off, contacting the county attorney has always worked, and in fact has caused various departments and states to revise practices.

                  So while they may not make a victim whole in a particular case, these civil suits can have significant and liberty-enhancing results over the long term. At least sometimes.

              2. This shit will stop when the pay stubs of every officer in the department shows line item deductions for every lost lawsuit that involves one of them.

                They want to play solier with MRAPs and full auto M-16’s? I have no problem with invoking unit punishment. And since under the 8th Amendment we can’t put them under a 24 hour pack drill…

            2. Remember boys and girls, don’t hold the police accountable, it is you, the taxpayer, that is accountable.

              1. Of course. Police are part of government, whose bedrock principle is power without responsibility.

            3. If you don’t just as you get the government you deserve you get the police department you deserve

              “Try and stop us. If you can’t then shut up!”

              1. Succinct and well played.

            4. I could not give a flying fuck if people who are so stupid

              Fail

            5. why should “taxpayers foot the bill” when cops fuck up? Incentives are a marvelous tool that can be used for both good and not so good purposes. If the price of your fuckups is picked up by everyone but you, there is no reason for you to change your behavior.

            6. Why should I pay for the cops’ mendacity?

              1. law suits should be paid with money from the police dept’s budget. They can reduce wages or cut back on tank maintenance if they have to. Hell they can all drive Smart cars to save gas, if they insist on intentional torts. Give them X and they pay ALL their bills.

              2. You know the answer. FYTW.

            7. I just pray for the day when some judge joins the FOP and local police unions on one of these civil suits. They bargained to keep these assholes on the job with next to no ability to have them fired too. You get to pay up 50% of the damages out of your precious union dues.

        2. She? Last I heard Gregory is a guy’s name. Or are you claming it’s a F2M tranny?

        3. So what?

          So, the fucking pig should go to fucking jail. You fucking troll. He kidnapped somebody, and then attempted to rob them of a hundred and fifty dollars.

          That he failed to actually secure the 150 (in the long run), or that some other poor schmuck’s stolen money was used to make the victim whole, is kinda beside the fuckin point. But you already knew that.

  6. Consider that in most police agencies and I say this as somebody who has written dozens of warrants in three different agencies, there is nearly universal policy in police departments for officers to have to submit their warrants for review to both a supervisor in the department and a prosecuting attorney

    In other words it is generally the case that Not only was the officer a complete fucking moron in this case by so was his supervisor and the prosecuting attorney who would have approved his warrant

    Also include the judge who apparently signed a warrant to search a car because there was probable cause the believers marijuana in the car despite the fact that is not a crime in Vermont

    So in most cases you would have not just the idiot cop but the idiot supervisor the idiot prosecutor and the idiot judge in this case

    The whole point of having a prosecutor review a warrant is that theoretically they have substantial legal training and should be able to see obvious errors like this is anybody with a brain should be able to

    In my experience I have seen plenty of both defence attorneys and prosecutors who have some pretty ridiculous gaps in their knowledge of the law sad to say

    1. If there was no P/C of a crime to justify this, then the cop committed a crime. It’s not legal to seize a vehicle, it’s driver and search it, stranding the driver, absent P/C. His affidavit claimed he had P/C, but he did not. That’s what I like to call a lie.

      Cop kidnapped the driver and stole his car, plain and simple. I don’t really care who he asked if it was OK. Of course, his superiors who authorized it should all be fired and the judge should be outed before the next election (assuming he faces election and has any opposition.)

      The cop is clearly guilty of these crimes and should face a long stretch in prison, Just as a human would, for kidnapping and GTA.

      1. In fact, he committed these crimes under color of authority, therefore, he should do at least double the time a normal human would face.

      2. Mistake of fact is usually enough to suffice for PC, while a mistake of law is not. (That said, not sure if that applies to every state, or just the one where I used to practice.)

        The judge can probably just say that the drug dog’s actions reasonably gave the office PC to search the trunk. PC is a pretty low standard (and not a uniform standard — c.f., probable cause for arrest and probable cause for binding over a felony case require different amounts of evidence. Supposedly, but I’ve found judges willing to call practically any bullshit PC, especially if they figure the client won’t go through endless appeals to get the ruling reversed.)

  7. You left out the most appalling part of the story! How the cops stranded him on the side of the road in 20 degree weather, and threatened him with arrest if he attempted to retrieve his wallet and phone from the car before it got towed. Petty thugs!

    1. If that had been me, one of my demands would be the surgical castration of both troopers and the dog. They obviously have a testosterone poisoning issue that needs immediate treatment.

    2. I had a client whom the cops released from jail at 5:30am on a sunday morning. The jail is located in an area that is both desolate and relatively unsafe at that time of morning. This was mid December, and the temperature was 18 degrees. The woman had no winter clothes — just a shirt and jeans — and nowhere to go. So she decided to sleep on the lobby floor until she could get a ride home.

      Great idea, right? Well, most people in jail are not the sharpest tools in the shed to start, so there we are.

      About an hour later, cops came to the lobby and told her she couldn’t stay there. She started arguing with them, so they tossed her outside, into the freezing cold. She tried coming back in, and the cops physically barred her, which turned into an altercation, and also two more charges for Resisting and Obstructing and Assault on an LEO.

      Yay cops. And yay stupid people, for that matter. (They aren’t always the same.)

  8. The operative difference between when a police officer screws up and when the prosecutor or judge screws up is it only a police officer has civil liability

    Qualified immunity can be breached and often is as I could demonstrate in case after case after case

    Judges and prosecutors both have immense power at least as much if not more than a police officer in many respects but they enjoy absolute immunity

    Many people here rail wrongly or correctly about qualifying immunity but what about absolute immunity?

    Maybe there is the justification for the latter as well but as cases like this demonstrate there is certainly a problem when a judge can do something like this and in no way shape or form face any penalty

    1. I’m glad you refuted all the people on H&R who support absolute immunity for prosecutors and judges. That’s telling them!

      1. Again a complete misstatement of my position

        The issue is what they say in their posts and what reason says in its articles

        In cases like this I have yet to see as you can read above a single criticism of the prosecutor or judge in cases like this

        Thank you for continually demonstrating my point that there is an inability among reasonoids in general to engage in basic reading comprehension

        Unlike the bigots I hold that police accountable and then prosecutors and judges but inconsideration of actual facts

        Smooches!

        1. In cases like this I have yet to see as you can read above a single criticism of the prosecutor or judge in cases like this

          In the case at hand, the probable cause was ‘faint odor of burnt marijuana.’ There are dozens of prosecutors and judges – probably just today alone – who approved equally stupid warrants around America.

        2. Sorry, you did in fact insinuate that people at reason weren’t sufficiently indignant against absolute immunity for prosecutors and judges.

          “Many people here rail wrongly or correctly about qualifying immunity but what about absolute immunity?”

          1. Oh, look, Reason criticizes prosecutorial immunity:

            https://reason.com/archives/200…..prosecutor

            “As former Reasoner Radley Balko has painstakingly documented, prosecutors often face few consequences when they abuse their power. Knowingly send an innocent man to death row? No problem.”

            https://reason.com/blog/2013/08…..rejected-f

            *french kisses*

        3. The cop was just as wrong as the prosecutor, and he had a gun and was prepared to use deadly force to affect his desires. The cops enforce the edicts of the judges and prosecutors. They are at least as guilty.

          For you to focus on the prosecutors and judges is to obfuscate the illegality of the cop’s actions. Remember, the cop started this whole sequence of events. He chose to pull this guy over for no reason and to pursue the illegal search.

          The actions of the judge show their blind support for the illegal acts of cops. They rubber stamp the BS claims of cops with such regularity, they can’t be bothered to even think about the issue in question.

          1. This does nothing to mitigate the obviously criminal behavior of the cop. Absent P/C, it’s illegal to lift a finger against a law abiding citizen. If we were to assign roles to the players, the cop is the mastermind of this crime, it’s sole instigator and driver. The secondary players are hapless dimwits, merely enabling the cop to perpetrate this crime.

            Of course, this meets the elements of a conspiracy, which would make the superior officer, prosecutor and the judge just as culpable. In fact everyone who assisted the officer (even the mechanic who fixed his patrol car) can be charged, under this theory. Happens everyday to mere mortals. No reason to offer any deals, it’s so easy to prove.

            What’s the mandatory minimum for kidnapping for monetary gain?

            1. plus a gun enhancement?

              Gang enhancement is a bit of a stretch, but certainly one the cops willing make with alarming regularity. Let’s give it a try.

      2. Let’s see how “absolute immunity” can alleviate the effects of 340 grains of Trepanizine.

  9. Remember boys and girls, you can’t spell “The artist known Dunphy” without “we shit on truth”.

    1. Remember just as everything else I post the bigoted idiots will ignore all the times when I hold police accountable for misconduct as in this case

      1. And morons such as above and Albanian will post untruthful statements and never point out where my alleged errors of truth are

        Thank God we are able to Get good police officers on the whole in this country and the idiots such as above poster remain mostly uninfluential in our system

        The truth wins out

        1. Thank God we are able to Get good police officers on the whole

          So there are bad police officers? Like this one? Who you refuse to condemn?

          1. Oh he condemns them alright. He condemns them to a long career full of reprimands, while the taxpayers pick up the tab, followed by years of gratuitous double-dipping once the pension kicks in.

            Justice!

  10. So, is this an example of his apologetics I’ve heard about so much in the past?

    Yeesh…

  11. Easy way to keep shit like this from happening:

    End immunity. For everyone.

  12. The difference between the old, “I can smell weed….” and “pull my finger” ruses is one actually does smell.

      1. Amazing how 340 grains of Trepanizine will chill someone out.

  13. See that faggoty little Puerto Rican guy over there with a badge? Yeah him. He calls himself ‘The artist known Dunphy.’

  14. Did the cop think “Will I face any consequences if I illegally pull this guy over, illegally have his vehicle towed, and then illegally have it searched?”

    No. All that went through the cops head was “I will have my way.”

    Now that the taxpayers have so generously paid for the cop’s illegal behavior, is there any reason to believe the cop will think any differently next time?

  15. Driving While Black plus Contempt of Cop with a side of Street Justice.

    Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

    Cops continue to dig their own graves. I hope they remember these incidents when they’re getting the shit beat out of them by a “criminal” while the “honest citizen” points and laughs.

    1. I hope they remember these incidents when they’re getting the shit beat out of them by a “criminal” while the “honest citizen” points and laughs.

      They won’t. They’ll be honestly bewildered. That’s why Dunphy cites polls so often. He truly feels that he is loved by the public.

      Thing is, as far as public servants are concerned, the public is everyone but you.

      So if you don’t like it, fuck you. They’ve got the public on their side.

      1. He’s actually correct about public support. Of course he leaves out the cradle to grave propaganda we’re subject to from the news, all forms of media, politicians and the government education system.

  16. I’d’ve consented to the search once the tow truck arrived.

    1. “Too late, Sambo. It’s gone.”

    2. I’d’ven’t.

      1. +morethan1letterandsomepunctuation

  17. DWB — driving while Black — is a traffic offense in all states. Having Black skin constitutes implied consent to a search of the driver, passengers and the vehicle in all states. The cops are racist because since most bad guys are Black, they “reason” that they all are, just not caught yet. Get over it man, they cops aren’t going to change until LOTS of officers are fired for this (and not rehired by the next town). And the Police Unions will never allow that to happen. Racist is as racist does.

  18. As predicted, derpfee does not disappoint.

    Except misspelling my name handle.

    Derpfee, I am disappoint 🙁 Also, you’re an idiot. Have a nice day.

    hth

  19. Very glad Mr. Zullo and ACLU are turning this into a big fat stink. It’s the perfect case to challenge illegal search and seizure by local cops — but thankfully without anyone getting shot or murdered or having their lives destroyed this time. Can’t believe people are still falling for the drug dog alert thing, even after we know it’s unreliable at best, and much more often, a total sham.

  20. Once pot is legal I imagine police will start claiming to smell the faint odor of black tar heroin gently wafting out of minority citizens vehicles.

    4th Amendment? What 4th Amendment? Isn’t that the one that allows search and seizure without probable cause? I swear, it’s like the Bill of Rights doesn’t even exist anymore.

    1. They’ll probably just shift the PC to “I smelled the odor of marijuana, and had reasonable suspicion to believe that this person had just smoked and was driving under the influence. I needed to search the car for evidence of the crime, blah blah blah.”

      Even if the pot is legal, driving under the influence is still a crime. And most people, being ignorant and/or scared, will try some sort of negotiating strategy with cops and end up spilling way more than they should. I’d say in 80-90% of the cases I dealt with, the person had already admitted to everything and signed a statement before they’d spoken with an attorney.

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