Category Archives: Courts & Judiciary

Mistakes may have contributed to 2-year-old’s death, committee finds

By Neal Goswami
MONTPELIER — A special Senate panel will seek subpoena power to obtain records and documents from the Rutland County Criminal Court and the Department of Children and Families in the course of its review of the Dezirae Sheldon case.
The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection was created following the February death of the 2-year-old Sheldon from severe head trauma, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, Dennis Duby. Members said Wednesday they want to know if mistakes made more than five years ago — and revealed in recent days — could have contributed to Sheldon remaining in an unsafe environment.
Committee co-chairs Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison, learned over the weekend of discrepancies in a previous criminal case involving Sheldon’s mother, 31-year-old Sandra Eastman. Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is possible that the errors may have influenced decisions made by DCF that allowed Eastman to keep custody of Sheldon despite convictions. Continue reading

Democratic PAC settles with state

MONTPELIER — A Democratic PAC must may a $30,000 penalty for violating the state’s campaign finance law during the 2010 election.

Green Mountain Future, a political action committee created by the Democratic Governors Association has settled with the state for the $30,000 penalty, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced Wednesday.

The settlement, which has been approved by the Vermont Superior Court, requires GMF to pay the state a civil penalty of $20,000 for failing to include its address on its website or in television ads that ran during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. GMF must also pay a $10,000 penalty the court had previously imposed for not registering as a PAC and filing campaign finance reports.

“Voters are legally entitled to know who is seeking to influence them,” Sorrell said a statement. “PACs need to obey the laws. They cannot hide. They must disclose their identity, including their address, their donors, and their expenditures, to the extent required by law.”

GMF spent more than $500,000 during the 2010 campaign on political ads. Television ads attacking Republican candidate Brian Dubie, the state’s former lieutenant governor, aired thousands of times but did not include complete identifying information. The public had no way of knowing who was behind the ads because GMF did not file required reports, Sorrell said.

The Vermont Superior Court determined that GMF violated Vermont’s campaign finance laws in Dec. 2011 but did not impose a financial penalty for its failure to fully identify itself in ads.

The Vermont Supreme Court then ruled in September that the lower court erred in not imposing a penalty. In its decision the Vermont Supreme Court said “the difficulty of calculating a penalty [does not] mean that no penalty can be awarded.”

The case returned to the trial court for consideration of an appropriate penalty. The settlement announced Wednesday closes out the only remaining issue in the enforcement action, Sorrell said.

Shumlin to swear in new Supreme Court justice Crawford

BURLINGTON — Vermont is going to getting a new Supreme Court justice.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is scheduled to swear in Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford on Wednesday at the Costello Courthouse in Burlington.
Crawford replaces Associate Justice Brian Burgess, who recently announced his retirement.
Crawford is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School.

Shumlin appoints Judge Geoffrey Crawford to Vermont Supreme Court

A longtime trial court judge who currently presides over the judicial system in Franklin County will serve as the next justice on the Vermont Supreme Court.

Judge Geoffrey Crawford has served in the trial courts since 2002 and has presided over criminal and civil cases in the majority of Vermont’s county courthouses. Gov. Peter Shumlin announced the appointment in a press release this morning.

“Geoff’s compassion and his years of experience as a trial judge, where he has served with a collegial attitude and well-regarded intellect, will make him a very strong addition to the Supreme Court,” Shumlin said in the release. “His reputation for fairness and rigor, as well as his demonstrated commitment to ensuring that our judiciary serves the needs of Vermonters, make me very proud to appoint him to the Court.”

Crawford, who worked in personal injury and commercial litigation at a private practice in Burlington prior to joining the bench, replaces retired Associate Justice Brian Burgess.

“It is a joy and a great honor to serve in the Vermont judiciary with so many dedicated staff members and fellow judges all working together to ensure justice for Vermonters,” Crawford said in a release. “I am deeply grateful for this new opportunity.”

For more on the appointment, check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Pot group plans full-court press for legalization by 2017

MONTPELIER — A national organization pushing for the reform of marijuana laws says it plans to launch a state-level lobbying effort aimed at legalizing cannabis in Vermont by 2017.

The announcement Tuesday from the Marijuana Policy Project coincides with hearings in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Patrick Leahy cheered the Department of Justice’s recent decision to take a hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement in the two states that have legalized the drug.

It also comes on the heels of comments from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said last week not only that he was open to starting the legalization debate, but that he didn’t want to allow much time to elapse before Vermont adopted the kinds of laws passed by referendum in Colorado and Washington.

“Vermont is a state that does have medical marijuana, that has passed decriminalization, and those are factors, including the governor saying he is open to the debate, that make us think it’s a good conversation to have in Vermont,” said Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

MPP, based in Washington, D.C., has spent thousands of dollars — between contributions to statewide and local candidates and contracts with a Montpelier lobbying firm — on marijuana reform efforts in the Green Mountain State.

Debate on opening police records nearing a close

By Brent Curtis | Special to the VPB

MONTPELIER — A prominent member of the media added his views Wednesday to a debate at the Statehouse over expanding public access to criminal investigation files.

“It seems to us that this is an excellent start, if not an endpoint,” retired WCAX-TV anchor and news director Marselis Parsons said of draft legislation to adopt federal Freedom of Information Act standards for records that are categorically off-limits under existing Vermont public records exemptions.

“The change would make information more available to the public — not the press per se … but the public,” he added.

Parsons, who retired from a full-time role at the station more than three years ago, and WCAX president and general manager Peter Martin were among six people who spoke Wednesday about proposed changes to the records law.

Click here for the rest of the story at www.rutlandherald.com >>>

In quest to prevent overdose deaths, Legislature considers criminal immunity for users

More than 70 Vermonters died last year in “drug-related” fatalities. Now lawmakers are wondering whether fear of prosecution might have cost some of them their lives.

Legislation introduced in the House this afternoon would extend limited criminal immunity to anyone who seeks medical attention for a drug user experiencing an overdose. Convinced that the threat of prosecution has deterred life-saving calls to 911, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan said minimizing deaths associated with opiate use needs to become a public health imperative.

“In no way do I view  this bill as condoning drug use or condoning people sharing drugs,” Donovan told the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I view this bill as an effort o save people’s lives. It’s very simple.”

While the concept might be simple, executing it in statute will not be. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has already voiced concerns about the scope of crimes for which offenders would win immunity.

The legislation guarantees immunity for people possessing or dispensing illicit narcotics, so long as evidence of those crimes is the result of the offender’s effort to secure emergency medical treatment for someone at risk of an overdose.

The bill also creates what’s known as an “affirmative defense” for more severe crimes, including dispensing a narcotic with death resulting. An affirmative defense doesn’t shield an offender from prosecution for the death of someone to whom he or she gave drugs. However if the defendant can prove in trial that he was caught only because he was attempting to secure medical care for the dying victim, then the case would be tossed.

Check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for more on the legislation, and where it’s headed next.

Lawmakers look to protect online privacy of job applicants

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

That mortifying Facebook photo you were tagged in last week? May not be such a deal-breaker after all.

Vermont lawmakers want to shield the social media profiles of job applicants from the prying eyes of their would-be employers.

For the second year in a row, Sen. Dick Sears is pushing a legislation that would make it illegal for employers to request from job seekers their passwords to Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts.

Sears said he’s unaware of any instances of Vermiont employers demanding access to applicants’ online profiles as a condition of employment. He said reports of the trend nationally, however, merit some proactive steps in the Green Mountains.

“It’s sort of like saying, when you come in for your interview, bring your diary with you, and we’re goig to read your diary,” Sears said Tuesday. “Something was amiss here.”

Vermont isn’t the first jurisdiction to tackle the issue of undue invasions of online privacy by human-resources personnel hunting for skeletons in online closets. Continue reading

Pot decrim and death with dignity? According to Shumlin, “we’re going to get them done.”

From death with dignity to marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday said he aims to seal the deal on several notable pieces of unfinished business from the last legislative biennium.

Shumlin in his first term was unable to deliver on some of his highest-profile legislative initiatives, including union rights for child care workers. At a morning press conference Tuesday, Shumlin said he’s confident lawmakers will send those bills to his desk in 2013.

“I’m confident that regardless of who leads the various bodies in the Legislature, that we can pass decriminalization of marijuana, death with dignity and the (unionization) bill for childcare workers,” Shumlin said. “We’re going to get them done.”

Key lawmakers aren’t so sure.

Sen. John Campbell, the Windsor County Democrat aiming for a second term as Senate president later this afternoon, was the Statehouse’s most prominent opponent to the death with dignity and childcare unionization bills. He said Tuesday his positions on those issues have not evolved in recent months, and that he’s not convinced either has the support needed to make it through the Legislature.

Campbell, however, said he won’t try to squelch a vote on any death with dignity legislation. In fact he said the topic in 2013 will receive more attention from Senate committees than it did in either of the last two sessions.

“I recognize that this issue is not going to go away, and if the majority of people want to have a debate, then that debate should happen,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he envisions joint hearings between Senate committees on  judiciary and health and welfare. He said the hearings come in response to requests for additional debate from people on both sides of the issue.

“If it passes it passes. If it doesn’t it doesn’t,” Campbell said. “But I think everyone involved in this conversation agrees there are issues that need to be vetted, so I think it’s worth taking the time to vet them.”

Look for more on the governor’s wishlist for 2013, and what lawmakes have to say about it, in tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Sorrell makes it official: Super PACs fair game in 2012

Rarely do prosecutors give the go-ahead to violate state laws. But in an advisory opinion issued Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Bill Sorrell let it be known that he won’t be enforcing aVermont statute that imposes $2,000 contribution limits on independent-expenditure political action committees.

While he supports the limits in concept, Sorrell said recent federal court decisions render Vermont’s statute constitutionally indefensible. Sorrell’s advisory opens the door to unlimited independent expenditures in poltiical races this year, heralding the arrival here of the same statutory landscape that has inspired the creation of super PACs in federal races.

“I remain deeply troubled by Citizen United’s unduly cramped understanding of the potential for corruption caused by the flow of large sums of money through all types of PACs in elections,” Sorrell said.

But the state of Vermont, he said, can’t go its own way on this one. Montana recently sought to uphold state limits on contributions to PACs, Citizens United notwithstanding, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down.  

Enforcing the $2,000 limits on PACs that have no coordination with the candidates themselves, Sorrell said, would spawn costly, and unwinnable, legal battles for Vermont.

“By announcing the office’s position on the issue, it is my goal to provide advance guidance to PACs and all participants in this election cycle and take meaningful steps to avoid potentially costly litigation,” he said.

Marijuana reform alive – kind of

Marijuana reform advocates have focused almost exclusively this year on the decriminalization bill stalled indefinitely in the Statehouse. But legislation that would increase four-fold the amount of cannabis Vermonters can sell without risking a felony conviction looks to have a far more promising path ahead.

Tucked into a Senate bill that would create a database for search warrants is a package of sentencing reforms that would, among other things, raise the threshold at which the sale of marijuana becomes a felony.

Currently, anyone caught selling a half-ounce or more is subject to a prison term of up to five years. The proposed legislation would increase that weight to two ounces, and relegate anything less than that to misdemeanor status.

“The guy selling that amount of marijuana isn’t guy I think we want to put in jail on felony charges,” Sears said Wednesday. “These aren’t the drug traffickers we want to be focusing on, so it makes sense I think to align our laws with our priorities from a criminal justice perspective.”

House Speaker Shap Smith has drawn sharp criticism this year from marijuana reform advocates for his opposition to the higher-profile decriminalization bill languishing in theMontpelier. But for Smith’s opposition, the bill, which has the support of both the Senate and Gov. Peter Shumlin, would face far rosier prospects for passage.

He seems to have fewer concerns, however, about tweaking the weight that triggers a felony for sale of marijuana.

“I still need to learn more about the proposal, but it sounds reasonable,” Smith said.

The legislation also changes some quirky laws, including one enacted in the mid-1800s that exposes people who serve alcohol to “habitual drinkers,” in their own homes no less, to felony charges.

Sears said the statute was originally intended to prevent enterprising Vermonters from transforming their living rooms into saloons.

The legislation additionally repeals a law that prohibits anyone from possessing more than a two-day supply of prescription drugs. Though it’s rarely, if ever, enforced, Sears said the law brands as criminals seniors who keep a seven-day supply in those little multi-chambered orange pillboxes.

Check out the full story on the bill in tomorrow’s Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Sorrell seeking re-election

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced last fall at a Democratic Party fundraiser he would seek another term and try to retain control of an office he has occupied since 1997.

Since then, however, the state lost the Vermont Yankee case, leading some to see Sorrell as vulnerable. (Sorrell has decided to appeal the VY decision).

That has led to chatter about Sorrell facing a primary from another Democratic opponent, along with the possibility that a strong Republican candidate would see a chance to become AG, though no challengers have emerged.

None of this has dissuaded Sorrell.

Asked Monday if was running this year, he said: “I definitely am.”

Sorrell said he has never faced a primary challenger in his seven previous races and said he doesn’t know if he will this time.

“Oh, you know, there are rumors,” he said.

Whether it’s consumer protection, criminal enforcement, environmental law or civil rights, Sorrell believes he has served Vermont well.

“I’m proud of my record,” he said

But voters will ultimately decide, either in a general election or a primary, Sorrell acknowledged.

“If I have a primary then Democratic voters will have a chance to decide whether they want me to continue in office or not,” he said.

‘Vermont Strong’ license plates illegal, for now

As of 8 a.m. Monday, the Department of Motor Vehicles had received 700 orders for the 'Vermont Strong' license plates created to raise money for survivors of Tropical Storm Irene. If yours has come in the mail, DON'T PUT IT ON YOUR CAR.

"It’s a little ironic in that it’s illegal to put one on your car right now," Peter Shumlin said this week.

That's because Vermont traffic laws require vehicles registered in the state to have two plates – one on the back and one on the front. Lawmakers have actually sought in the past to require plates only on the rear-facing end of cars and trucks – it would save the state a few hundred thousand dollars a year - but law-enforcement officials don't like that idea at all.

A statutory fix is rapidly underway. The Senate Committee on Transportation has already approved legislation making a front-plate exception for people who shell out $25 for the 'Vermont Strong' plates, which will replace car owners' regular tags.

The House is expected to fast track the bill when it arrives there.

"Just keep it on the kitchen counter for a fews days until we get the law passed," Shumlin said.