The Vermont State Police may soon be forced to compensate motorists pulled over for driving while black. The state Supreme Court was unanimous last week in holding the state agency liable for such conduct in a ruling that reviewed the conduct of then-Trooper Lewis Hatch toward 21-year-old black motorist Gregory W. Zullo.
Zullo was behind the wheel of his mother’s 2005 Pontiac Sunfire on March 6, 2014, and was headed to a friend’s house in Wallingford. The best excuse the trooper could come up with for initiating the traffic stop was that there was a tiny amount of snow blocking the Pontiac’s rear license plate registration sticker. Dashcam video showed the rest of the plate could easily be read. After approaching Zullo, the trooper claimed he smelled marijuana, so he asked if he could search the car.
When Zullo refused, Trooper Hatch had the car impounded and searched. Nothing illegal was found. Zullo had to walk eight miles home in 23 degree weather because the officer refused to let the motorist retrieve his wallet and phone from the car to arrange a ride. Later that evening, Zullo was forced to pay a $150 fee to get his car back, even though he was not charged with a crime.
Zullo sued the state police, but officials insisted they could not be held liable. The high court justices concluded that the state could not assert sovereign immunity after violating Zullo’s rights.