BENNINGTON>> The Vermont Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of a man whose attorneys argued was illegally searched by local police during a traffic stop.
The court vacated the 10-year sentence given to Shamel L. Alexander, who was found with 11 grams of heroin when police pulled over the taxi cab he took from Albany, N.Y. to Bennington in 2013.
In the Feb. 12 decision, the Supreme Court's ruled Bennington police did not have "reasonable suspicion" to interrogate and search Alexander, a Brooklyn, N.Y. resident who at the time was 25. The decision reversed the Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division's denial of a motion to suppress evidence that Alexander and his attorneys argued was obtained by unlawful seizure. Police suspected Alexander was a drug dealer nicknamed "Sizzle," an African-American man who took taxi cabs to the area to distribute drugs.
Because there was no information placing Sizzle near Bennington on the day of Alexander's arrest, the court concluded "the broad and general description as a large, black male was insufficient to elevate that defendant might be Sizzle from a 'hunch' to a reasonable suspicion," Associate Justice Beth Robinson wrote in the Feb. 12 decision.
The case raised concerns of racial bias in police stops and sentencing in Vermont.
Robert Appel of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (VCJR), in an amicus or "friend of the court" brief, asked the case be reviewed in view of current sentencing trends and the negative impact a 10-year sentence could have on Alexander. Alexander, who was 25 when arrested, had no prior record or violent history and did not possess weapons. The brief argued that "if [Alexander] were a Caucasian individual who was born and bred in Vermont, he would not have been sentenced to a term of ten years and a day for this first offense."
<URL destination="http://www.benningtonbanner.com/ci_23652407/accused-heroin-dealer-held-100-000-bond">Police initially questioned, searched and arrested Alexander, of Brooklyn, N.Y., on the night of July 11, 2013.
</URL>At the time, police believed a man nicknamed "Sizzle" was taking buses or taxis from New York to deliver drugs in Bennington, and that drug transactions had taken place at the bus stop next to the Lucky Dragon Chinese restaurant on Main Street.
Det. Peter Urbanowicz, a member of the Southern Vermont Drug Task Force, gave the driver of an Albany, N.Y. taxi cab directions to that restaurant and noticed Alexander in the front seat.
Urbanowicz then told Corporal Andy Hunt the cab "would probably be a good traffic stop if you could find him doing something wrong," according to court records.
The decision states police expanded the seizure beyond the scope of reasonable suspicion when Hunt asked the driver to exit the cab — Hunt had carried out the routine checks related to a minor traffic violation before he turned attention to drug-related crimes. According to the decision, that prolonged the traffic stop beyond the time needed to investigate its initial purpose, and would have required additional suspicion to support an extended search.
Alexander initially objected to police searching the bag, but consented before a drug-sniffing dog arrived. Hunt found 401 bags of heroin, over 10 grams, in Alexander's bag.
But the Supreme Court ruled police did not have reasonable suspicion that Alexander was engaged in criminal activity just because they knew some drug dealers are known to travel by taxi or bus.
"Although heroin and crack cocaine dealers from out of state may arrive in Bennington by taxicab or bus, so do out-of-state visitors coming to Vermont to ski, hike, shop, view the foliage, attend school, engage in legitimate business activities, or enjoy a quiet getaway," Associate Justice Beth Robinson wrote in the decision. "The act of traveling by taxi or bus from Albany to Bennington is not only
entirely innocent in and of itself, but is common for law-abiding citizens."
The Supreme Court also ruled that the information police had wasn't enough to support that Alexander was Sizzle. The only nickname associated with Alexander was "Snacks" and, although both begin with an "S", the names aren't similar enough to support one is a variant of the other. In addition, Sizzle travelled with a woman whom local police said they knew, although Alexander was travelling alone.
The decision also states the only shared characteristics among Alexander and the man described as Sizzle are they are both large African-American men and both travel to Bennington by taxi or bus — the state did not present evidence on Sizzle's general appearance including height, hair style, complexion, or distinguishing physical characteristics.
"For these reasons, the description of Sizzle on which the police officers' suspicion of defendant was based was so broad and vague as to sweep in any large black male getting off a bus at the station in downtown Bennington, or arriving in Bennington via taxi, and thus too general and vague to
exclude a large number of presumably innocent individuals," Robinson wrote.
Alexander is scheduled to appear in Bennington Superior Court for a calendar call, a common scheduling proceeding in court, on Monday, March 7.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979