BENNINGTON — A Brooklyn man whose 10-year sentence for heroin trafficking was thrown out by the Vermont Supreme Court is suing the town, claiming he was stopped and searched because of his race.
On Friday, a complaint was filed in United States District Court District of Vermont by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Vermont on behalf of Shamel Alexander, of Brooklyn, who is African-American. The suit names the Town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, Bennington Police Officer Andrew Hunt, and (former) Bennington Police Detective Peter Urbanowicz as defendants.
The suit requests that the court award damages to Alexander, but does not list a specific dollar amount.
In July 2013, Alexander, then 25, pleaded not guilty to felony heroin trafficking in Vermont Superior Court Criminal Division Bennington Unit. He was held for lack of $100,000 bail.
According to an affidavit by Hunt, on July 11, 2013, a member of the Vermont Drug Task Force — identified in other filings as Urbanowicz — told him a taxi cab from New York had just asked him directions to the Chinese restaurant on Main Street. Hunt said he saw said cab nearly run a red light and turn onto Main Street from North Street. Hunt said the cab had a GPS device on its windshield, a violation of 23 VSA 1125 Obstructing Windshields, so he pulled the cab over across from Lucky Dragon, a Chinese restaurant.
Prior to this part of his affidavit, Hunt wrote that police were aware of people moving drugs into Vermont from New York via taxi cab and using Lucky Dragon as a drop-off point.
Hunt said he obtained the identification of the cab driver and of his passenger, Alexander, the latter having no active warrants or criminal record beyond contact with police in Dover in 2010. Alexander claimed to have family in Bennington and said the names of several people bearing his own surname, none of whom were familiar to Hunt.
Hunt learned from the cab driver that Alexander had come to Bennington via cab many times before and he thought it odd that Alexander had no address to be left at, just asking to be brought to the restaurant. Hunt told the driver he suspected Alexander was transporting drugs, to which the driver agreed it was possible. The driver gave Hunt permission to search the vehicle.
Alexander initially refused to allow his belongings to be searched, but relented when Hunt called dispatch to summon a drug dog.
In one of Alexander's bags Hunt found 401 bags of heroin, all told weighing a little more than 11 grams.
Alexander was convicted at a bench trial and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. He had filed a motion to suppress the evidence collected at the traffic stop, arguing that police did not have enough grounds to expand their search. The court denied the motion, but Alexander appealed it and his conviction to the Vermont Supreme Court, which in February reversed the denial on the motion and remanded Alexander's case back to the lower court where the state ultimately dismissed it.
In March of this year, having served three years in jail since his arrest, Alexander was released.
Alexander's complaint outlines largely the same course of events as in Hunt's affidavit, citing details gleaned from testimony given at the trial and the hearing on Alexander's motion to suppress. It does add a detail about how Hunt came to make the stop. According to the complaint, after giving the cab driver directions, Urbanowicz then told Hunt that the cab "would probably be a good stop if (Hunt) could find him doing something wrong."
Hunt then pulled ahead of Urbanowicz and followed the cab down Main Street, making the stop based off the GPS unit stuck to the cab's windshield.
According to the complaint, Urbanowicz later testified that police had information that a "heavy set" African-American male going by the name "Sizzle" was transporting drugs into Vermont, coming to the Lucky Dragon via taxi cab to meet a local woman. According to the complaint, police did not know Sizzle's real name, how heavy-set he was, or anything else about him.
"Defendant Urbanowicz encouraged Defendant Hunt to stop Mr. Alexander because he was an unknown African-American man in a New York taxicab that hailed from New York, not because he believed he was Sizzle," reads the complaint.
Police did learn that Alexander went by the nickname "Snacks."
"'Snacks' does not sound like and is not similar to 'Sizzle,'" reads the complaint, alleging that given what Hunt knew of Alexander he had no reason to suspect he was involved in criminal activity but had decided to conduct a search all the same even before leaving his cruiser.
Elements of the complaint seem to reflect points cited by the Vermont Supreme Court, which said that traveling to Bennington from New York via taxi is not suspicious, nor is being nicknamed "Snacks" a reason to think a person might be someone also be called "Sizzle."
The complaint accused the defendants of violating Alexander's "Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and his Title VI right to be free from race-based discrimination."
The complaint holds Doucette, the town, and the police department accountable for violating Alexander's rights, saying they were responsible for training and directing Urbanowicz and Hunt.
Lia Ernst, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Vermont, who is expected to represent Alexander along with two other attorneys, said that the fact police allegedly found heroin in Alexander's bag is irrelevant to this case. "We do not have an ends justify the means approach to our constitutional rights," she said, adding that there have been multiple discrimination claims in Vermont suggesting that racial profiling by police is a problem that needs to be addressed. She said police need better training to recognize and overcome any implicit biases they may have.
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Monday that neither he, nor Doucette, would comment.
Urbanowicz retired from the Bennington Police Department in 2014 and was hired by the Bennington County Sheriff's Department. It's not clear if he still works there, though it was reported last year that another retiring Bennington Police Officer planned to step into Urbanowicz's role as a domestic violence investigator assigned to the Bennington County State's Attorney's Office.
— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115