Vermont Supreme Court upholds privacy ruling

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(Host) The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer can’t ask a driver to get out of a vehicle unless there’s reason to believe a crime has been committed. The decision is seen as a victory by civil liberties advocates.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) In October of 2000, Jonathan Sprague was stopped for speeding on Interstate 89. The state trooper who pulled Sprague over asked him to get out of his car and into the cruiser. Before Sprague got into the police car, he was asked to empty his pockets. Sprague admitted that he had a small packet of marijuana. Subsequently, Sprague’s car and his house were searched with his consent and he was charged with possession.

But the high court ruled that the request that Sprague leave his car in the first place, which resulted in his search and arrest, was illegal. In a ruling issued Friday, the court said that when the trooper pulled Sprague over, there was no reasonable suspicion that Sprague had been engaged in criminal activity or presented any kind of danger.

The ruling reaffirms a key 1986 Vermont Supreme Court decision in the State v. Jewett. That decision was important because it was based on protections set forth in the Vermont Constitution, rather than the lower standards of the United States Constitution.

Speaking at a Vermont Law School Symposium in South Royalton Friday, Supreme Court Justice John Dooley called the Jewett decision a clarion call to courts and attorneys to turn to their own state’s constitutions as a basis for decisions. Dooley said the Sprague ruling is important because it clarifies the Jewett decision:

(Dooley) “A number of commentators had said that Jewett probably seems to say that there has to be grounds for the exit order, you just can’t do it on a whim. And this decision says, ‘Yes, that is the meaning of Jewett.'”

(Zind) Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello says the court’s reliance on Vermont’s constitutional guarantees is even more important today than they were when the Jewett decision was made.

(Mello) “For me the significance comes in the light of September 11, in the tendency to give law enforcement the power to do whatever it wants. Sprague really is a reaffirmation of the Vermont Supreme Court’s independence and it’s determination to protect the rights of Vermonters to be let alone.”

(Zind) Mello says if the Sprague decision had been based on federal law, Jonathan Sprague’s search and arrest would have been upheld.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in South Royalton.

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