A lawsuit over a vehicle search after a traffic stop based on the alleged odor of cannabis is headed to the Supreme Court after being thrown out by Rutland Superior in May, according to a VT Digger report. The lawsuit on behalf of Gregory Zullo filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the Rutland resident was improperly pulled over and searched, and his vehicle illegally seized.
According to court documents outlined by the Digger, Zullo, an African-American state resident, was stopped in March 2014 by Trooper Lewis Hatch and ordered to exit his vehicle and allow it to be searched “based on the alleged odor of burnt marijuana.”
Criminal charges were never filed against Zullo in the case. Hatch was fired in January for his pattern of conducting illegal searches, which usually targeted black men, Seven Days reported in May 2016. Hatch has appealed the termination to the Vermont Labor Relations Board.
“Hatch seized Mr. Zullo unnecessarily for an hour and had Mr. Zullo’s car towed to the barracks for a search, which revealed no contraband,” the ACLU’s docketing statement says. “To retrieve his car, Mr. Zullo walked and hitch-hiked eight miles home through sub-freezing temperatures, waited several hours at the barracks, and was forced to pay a $150 fee.”
Hatch claimed the reason he stopped Zullo was because the registration sticker on his license plate was covered by snow. Zullo’s attorney, Lia Ernst, contends that racial profiling is to blame.
“When the alleged reason for the stop is something that nearly every vehicle driving in Vermont in winter would be in the same condition, we have to ask why stop this vehicle and not some other vehicle,” she said in the report.
The lawsuit is also challenging whether Vermont police should continue to use the “sniff test” as justification for searches after the state decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of cannabis in 2013.