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EXCLUSIVE: State Prosecutor Sarah George rebuked by law enforcement over criticisms of traffic stops

By Michael Bielawski,

The Vermont Chittenden County State Prosecutor Sarah George was rebuked by a state police spokesperson and a police chief for her public comments suggesting that police are stopping too many cars and engaging in discrimination.

George was highlighted in April of last year by The New York Times in an article titled, “Cities Try to Turn the Tide on Police Traffic Stops”.

“Such stops “are a danger to law enforcement” as well as ineffective and racially discriminatory, Sarah George, the prosecutor for Chittenden County, Vt., wrote in a statement this year explaining why she would “presumptively” decline to bring charges arising from minor pullovers,” the report states.

Last week Sgt Jay Riggins from the Vermont State Police appeared on the Morning Drive radio show and its host former state and city lawmaker Kurt Wright brought up the comments by George and Riggins responded.

“If a officer is directed to not stop it in the first place because it ‘only’ a headlight or ‘only’ a ‘only’ a registration violation, then we do run the risk of missing the pre-event that I would call what happened up in Newport, a pre-event stop from what could have been quite tragic.”

Chief Braedon S. Vail of the Barre City Police Department spoke with VDC by phone on Tuesday.

“I think it’s a balance and officers are allowed to have discretion and if you are not allowed to stop, if they do away with certain and you are not allowed to stop for those violations, I disagree with that. But I do agree with officers being allowed to use discretion and I don’t think that those non-moving violations should be discounted or done away with.”

Vail talked more about how they can and do lead to arrests for impaired driving or other criminal activities.

“I would say some folks consider like having a tail light out or not having a front license plate could be a pretext stop.” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that people know that the individual that’s operating the vehicle is doing something criminal. It’s just often times when you stop vehicles for those violations, it can go into a further criminal offense. … If you are stopping for violations you could find DUIs that way.”

He added that unfortunately many police departments such as up in Burlington are understaffed which means officers don’t have much time to do many non-moving violation stops because they are stretched thin on bigger crimes. He added it can still be worth it to make those stops.

“Folks that are involved in criminal behavior have to get from point A to point B, generally speaking they are within a motor vehicle most of the time,” he added.

On the radio show, Wright noted that recently there was a non-moving violation and pull over up in Newport that resulted in the driver being found with guns and apparently, he told police that he was “looking to shoot someone”. The Caledonia Record covered the incident.

Riggins said that in all non-moving violation stops account for about 4-in-10 of the drunk or drugged drivers that they catch.

“We know that if we were to eliminate non-public safety stops … if we were to eliminate that from our repertoire, we would miss 40% of impaired drivers,” Riggins said.

Vail said when it comes to local police those numbers might be different. He added that state police spend a lot of time on highway patrol.

Riggins noted that when an impaired driver doesn’t get pulled over for a a non-moving violation, that means the next thing that can happen is worse.

“One of the things that we’re looking at for next year is to study that impact of what happens in Burlington if the officers there, time not withstanding, don’t make stops for a non-moving violations. And our concern is that leads to a ripple in the surrounding areas and the troopers are now responding to what is an impaired driving crash.”

The author is a reporter for the Vermont Daily Chronicle


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