State dismisses DUI charge against Black driver
BENNINGTON — The local state's attorney has dismissed a drunken driving charge against an African American man, acknowledging inappropriate comments made by the arresting officer.
State's Attorney Erica Marthage dismissed the misdemeanor charge against Thurman Jones III on June 29, 1-1/2 years after he was prosecuted in Bennington Superior Court, court records show.
Jones, 33, was charged with driving under the influence (second offense) after a Winhall police officer stopped the car carrying him and three other African American men in the early hours of Nov. 18, 2018. This happened along Route 7 in Shaftsbury, where the officer reported seeing the car weaving in its lane.
Officer Jeremiah Rogers, of the Winhall Police Department, lives in Bennington and was on his way to work when he initially saw Jones' car pulled over along Route 7 near Arlington, its flashers on. Rogers pulled in behind the car, and it drove off, reportedly because Jones didn't recognize the flat-top cruiser as a police vehicle; its emergency lights weren't turned on.
Jones' attorneys earlier asked the court to dismiss his criminal charge, arguing it had been tainted by implicit racial bias and constitutional rights violations.
The defense attorneys said there was no reasonable basis for the traffic stop, because Jones neither needed assistance nor committed a traffic violation.
They said also that Rogers made inappropriate comments during the stop, which were recorded on his body camera.
This included "gratuitously commenting that four black men in Vermont are using the route used by drug couriers," according to an October 2019 court filing by defense attorneys Susan McManus and Rick Burgoon.
Rogers, they wrote, accused Jones of taking opiates when his pupils contracted as he faced brightly lit police vehicles in the dark instead of "recognizing that bright lights will decrease the size of the pupils."
"In the context of an equitable outcome, it is legitimate for both the State, and respectfully, this Court, to consider the following: would any such comments ever be made to a white driver in Vermont, or out-of-state white tourists with skis on top of their car, or white drivers seeking to view our foliage," a portion of Jones' 34-page motion to suppress and dismiss reads. "The answer is, highly unlikely."
Marthage acknowledged this point in her notice of dismissal.
"I question whether the comment regarding Route 7 being a drug corridor would have been made to a white driver," she wrote. The arresting officer himself had already given this issue some thought, she added.
"The drug corridor had nothing to do with why Mr. Jones was detained, processed and charged. However, I am not convinced that this topic would have come up if a middle-aged white couple was in the car rather than 4 black males," the notice reads.
Marthage emphasized that although she believes the state would have proven its case, "recent national tragedies have spurred everyone to examine our words and behaviors a little closer." She said this case "demonstrates how subconscious thoughts can outwardly expresses themselves in unintended ways."
Defense attorney McManus told the Banner she thinks the current national discussion on racial inequity — particularly in the criminal justice system — played a role in Marthage's decision to dismiss her client's charge.
"I believe that it shows a willingness to engage in these difficult discussions and take a closer look at how implicit bias and race factor into the criminal justice system," McManus said in an email. "We know from study after study that race plays a role in the criminal system. It affects how likely a person is to be stopped by police. It impacts the likelihood of pretrial detention and the severity of sentences ultimately imposed."
Judge John Valente, of the Bennington Superior Court, dismissed Jones' case at a hearing June 30. Because the state dismissed his charge without prejudice, prosecutors have the option of refiling it. The defense had asked for a permanent dismissal.
Contact Tiffany Tan at email@example.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.
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