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Vermont ACLU Sues State Over Traffic Stop, Car Seizure

In 2014, Gregory Zullo was pulled over for having part of his license plate covered. The state trooper said he smelled marijuana in the car and towed the car. The Vermont ACLU sued the state and is appealing the case to the Vermont Supreme Court.
In this screen shot from police video of a March traffic stop in Wallingford, Greg Zullo, 21, speaks with State Trooper Lewis Hatch about snow on the bumper of his car. Zullo is suing the state of Vermont.

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont over a traffic stop in Wallingford last March.

The ACLU says that the young man filing the lawsuit was stopped, his car was seized and he was left to walk eight miles home after a trooper said he smelled burnt marijuana.

21-year-old Greg Zullo was pulled over for having some snow on the bumper of his car, which the trooper said was touching or covering the registration sticker on his rear license plate.

“Any Vermonter will recognize that there was not a great amount of snow on Greg’s back bumper,” said ACLU-Vermont Staff Attorney Dan Barrett, who is working on the case. The group has made the video of the traffic stop available online. “In fact it was pretty much pristine, except for a tiny amount of snow. So that was the first thing that really raised our eyebrows about the case.”

The state trooper said he smelled burnt marijuana and asked to search the car. Zullo said no, refusing the search.

“It’s really interesting and exciting, at least for civil libertarians to see a young man who knows his rights,” Barrett said. Zullo declined the search of his car, but he did exit the vehicle at the trooper’s request and allowed a search of his person.  But the car was towed away and searched, and the ACLU is questioning whether that seizure was legal. When the car was searched, a pipe and a grinder was found, but Zullo was not ticketed for that offense.

Zullo was left to walk 8 miles home to Rutland.

“In order to impound you need to have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed,” Barrett explained. “The crux of the problem that we see in this stop is that you can’t have probable cause for a crime where no crime is committed. And the crime that was alleged here is the possession of a small amount of marijuana which is, since 2013, no longer a crime in Vermont.” That’s the year that possession of less than an ounce of marijuana was decriminalized, punishable by a fine.

“To us the question is what exactly was the probable cause here to impound the car, to take it away, and then to search it?” Barrett asked.

Greg Zullo is African-American. Studies have shown that African-American men are searched more after traffic stops than people of other races.

“It is very troubling and somewhat suspicious that this happened to be a young African-American man who received this treatment. This treatment borders on outrageous. The idea that you’re separated from your car and it’s taken away from you and that’s that, get home under your own power,” Barrett said. “We are very concerned that those rates of searches that happen to non-white motorists are still a problem as they were a couple of years ago when the state police first reported the results of their stop data survey.”

Barrett said Zullo is suing for damages, but the case means more than that. “It’s a way of getting a day in court. I think what Greg and probably any other motorist who was put in that position would feel is there has to be some kind of acknowledgement here that something was wrong and it’s also a way, we hope, of getting police to correct their behavior and stop treating small amounts of marijuana possession as if it were a criminal offense pre-2013.”

The Vermont State Police spokesperson Stephanie Dasaro said it would be inappropriate to comment on an active lawsuit, and referred questions to the Attorney General's office. Assistant Attorney General Megan Schafritz says her office has just received the lawsuit and can't comment on the specifics of the complaint, but it is under review.

This story was originally published with the headline Vermont Man Sues State, Claims State Police Seized His Car, Stranding Him 8 Miles From Home.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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