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Vermont Supreme Court Hears Traffic Stop Case Involving Alleged Racial Profiling

Gregory Zullo, center, at the Vermont Supreme Court Wednesday.
Henry Epp
Gregory Zullo, center, at the Vermont Supreme Court Wednesday.

Attorneys made arguments Wednesday before Vermont's highest court in a case involving a traffic stop that allegedly stemmed from racial profiling.

In 2014, then 21-year-old Gregory Zullo, a Rutland resident who is African-American, was pulled over for having snow covering the registration sticker on his license plate.

State police trooper Lewis Hatch then demanded to search Zullo's car, saying he smelled marijuana. Zullo refused.

His car was impounded and searched by police. Zullo then had to walk eight miles home, according to the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is suing the state on Zullo’s behalf.

The ACLU is arguing Zullo’s rights against unlawful search and seizure were violated. Those rights are spelled out under Article 11 of the Vermont constitution.

Speaking outside the Supreme Court building Wednesday, ACLU attorney Lia Ernst said this is a case of racial profiling.

“Trooper Hatch pulled him over for something that … wasn't even a violation of law, and ... even if it were a violation of law, it's next to impossible in Vermont in March to not have some snow on your license plate,” Ernst said. “Why did trooper Hatch pick our client rather than any other car with snow on his license plate? We can draw our own conclusions from that."

In court, David Groff, the attorney for the state, pointed to a policy in the state's vehicle inspection manual that requires car registration stickers to be unobstructed.

Groff also argued trooper Hatch was justified in seeking a search of the car over the smell of marijuana.

Meanwhile, the ACLU told justices that possessing under an ounce of marijuana is a civil, not criminal violation. But Groff said the trooper could not have known how much of the drug may have been in the car.

"He smells marijuana. There could be under an ounce, there could be more than an ounce,” Groff said. “I think he acted properly by taking the car and getting a search warrant. By the way, they did find pot in the car.”

Justices pointed out that a pipe with marijuana residue and a grinder was found in the car.

Trooper Lewis Hatch lost his job in 2016.

Later that year, Seven Days reported Hatch had a history of conducting questionable drug searches and frequently targeting African-American men.

Speaking outside the court, Gregory Zullo said he asked trooper Hatch during the 2016 traffic stop if he was racist. Zullo said Hatch responded with a laugh.

“Not to say you can’t answer that question,” Zullo said. “I just think, you know … if you’re going to represent the state, if you’re going to be, you know, in a position of authority, you should at least treat the citizens of your jurisdiction with dignity and respect.”

If the Supreme Court rules in Zullo and the ACLU's favor in the lawsuit, it would overturn a lower court ruling, which rejected the case.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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