Chittenden prosecutor won’t try charges resulting from ‘non-public safety traffic stops’

The Chittenden County prosecutor’s office will no longer pursue charges in cases where evidence of a crime was collected during a “non-public safety” traffic stop, according to a memo from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George. File photo by Glenn Russell/VT Digger

The Chittenden County prosecutor’s office will no longer pursue charges in cases where evidence of a crime was collected during a “non-public safety” traffic stop, according to a memo from State’s Attorney Sarah George. 

George said she’s dismantling the practice because non-public safety stops — which, under her definition, would include offenses such as driving with a suspended license or broken brake light — disproportionately stop passengers of color, according to a book she cites in the memo.

“Public safety stops,” on the other hand, can still lead to charges if evidence of a crime is found. This is because public safety stops, which are performed for violations such as excessive speeding or suspicions of an intoxicated driver, “appear to have very little racial bias in who they arrest,” the memo stated.

The memo was released Dec. 21 and updated Jan. 7. It does not restrict police officers from pulling people over for what it deems to be non-public safety stops. Instead, it announces that George’s office would not prosecute potential crimes that are uncovered during such a stop.

The memo listed 13 traffic laws that, should an officer find evidence of a crime while enforcing them, the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office would not seek charges for that crime. In addition to driving with a suspended license or broken brake light, they are:

  • failing to signal a lane change,
  • driving too slowly,
  • driving a vehicle with an expired inspection,
  • driving a vehicle without registration,
  • driving a vehicle with improperly assigned plates,
  • driving with an excessively loud muffler,
  • driving a vehicle with tinted windows,
  • idling for too long,
  • driving in the left lane of a two-lane highway when the right lane is unoccupied,
  • driving with a broken taillight,
  • hanging an object from a vehicle’s rear-view mirror and
  • “stops done strictly to conduct a warrant check.”

George added traffic violations to the list of non-public safety stops if they “do not cause harm to others,” the memo said. Public safety stops, meanwhile, are performed when drivers “harm or threaten to harm other people in the community,” according to the memo. 

In addition to suspected intoxicated driving and excessive speeding (defined as going more than 7 mph above the speed limit), the memo listed examples of public safety stops as “running through a red light” and “reckless operation of a vehicle in a way that makes the road unsafe for others.”

George also reserved the right not to prosecute charges stemming from a public safety stop if her office believes the stop “was made only for the purpose of ‘fishing’ for evidence of other crimes,” the memo stated.

In cases where an officer pulls someone over for a non-public safety traffic violation and a public safety violation, George’s office “will consider the case, so long as the alleged public safety violation is not being use (sic) as a ‘pretext’ to search a driver’s vehicle,” according to the document.

George was not available Wednesday for an interview to discuss the memo, she told VTDigger.

Hinesburg Police Chief Anthony Cambridge said the memo won’t change day-to-day traffic enforcement in his town of 4,700 at the southern edge of Chittenden County.

“A violation is a violation,” Cambridge told VTDigger. “We’re still going to make traffic stops and do the things that we do.”

“If we can’t bring something to the state’s attorney or the state’s attorney doesn’t want to proceed with a case as a result of a traffic stop, then I certainly stand behind that. That’s their prerogative,” Cambridge said. 

Yet the memo suggests that George’s policy shift has a larger aim. Rather than simply cut off the flow of criminal cases arising from non-public safety stops, the goal is to eradicate non-public safety stops as a practice. 

“In addition to increasing racial bias within our criminal legal system, non-public safety stops also do not improve safety in our communities,” George wrote in the memo. “There is no indication so far that non-public safety stops make communities or law enforcement safer.”

According to a 2017 study of Vermont traffic data George cited in the memo, 3.6% of Black drivers had their vehicle searched during traffic stops, compared with 0.9% of white drivers. When their vehicles were searched, however, police issued tickets to or arrested 67% of white drivers, as opposed to 56% of Black drivers.

The combination of a higher search rate but a lower “hit rate” indicate there is systemic racial bias in whether Vermont law enforcement searches drivers after pulling them over, the study argued.

George also pointed to a U.S. Department of Justice study that found traffic stops to be the most common self-initiated action that results in a law enforcement officer being killed on the job. 

That study does not distinguish between varieties of traffic stops and said because “the public encounters law enforcement officers most often during these stops for traffic violations … it makes sense that these stops are the independent enforcement action with the highest number of law enforcement fatalities.”

In response to George’s announcement, the head of the Vermont State Police told his force that “regardless of the position outlined in the memo,” they should “continue to enforce motor vehicle statues (sic) impartially.”

“Traffic enforcement is one component of the larger strategy to achieve public safety on Vermont’s highways. All members (of the state police) are expected to participate in this mission,” Col. Matthew Birmingham wrote in a memo provided to VTDigger. 

Birmingham also told his force to “continue using appropriate individual discretion in your enforcement work,” and that troopers should let crash data inform where they spend their time.

Messages left Wednesday afternoon for police chiefs in Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski, Williston, Essex Junction, Milton, Shelburne and Richmond were not immediately returned. 

When reached by phone, Colchester Police Chief Doug Allen initially told a VTDigger reporter they could ask him questions about George’s memo, then said he had no comment and ended the call after the reporter asked to record their conversation.

As Chittenden state’s attorney, George’s efforts at criminal justice reform have sometimes been met with frustration by police and public safety officials as well as elected leaders. 

Former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan clashed with George over her stance on the non-medical use of buprenorphine, which is prescribed to treat heroin addiction and the permissibility of sites where people using illicit drugs can consume substances under medical supervision, sometimes called “overdose prevention” or “safe injection” sites. 

Additionally, George’s decision to end cash bail for defendants awaiting trial sparked criticism from other prosecutors who see the practice as a helpful tool.

In 2018, Burlington’s mayor and police chief criticized George’s decision not to prosecute a man who was arrested for his role in a downtown scuffle that sent a bystander to the hospital. 

Gov. Phil Scott called George’s judgment into question when, in 2019, she dropped charges against three people who had been charged in individual cases with murder or attempted murder. George declined to prosecute the cases after psychiatric examinations found the defendants to be insane.

State Attorney General TJ Donavan, her former boss at the Chittenden prosecutor’s office, took the extraordinary step of refiling the charges in one of those cases, though a judge ruled last month that Donovan could not order another psychiatric examination for the defendant. 

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Chittenden prosecutor won’t try charges resulting from ‘non-public safety traffic stops’