Friday, October 8, 2010

A Defendant by Any Other Name . . .

The Court affirms Defendant’s conviction of sale of cocaine, conspiracy to sell cocaine, possession of cocaine, and possession of marijuana, upholding the trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence following a warrantless arrest. 

Defendant was arrested based on tips provided by an informant.  The informant gave up this information after the police found $2,200 in cash, a digital scale, and a bag of crack on her.  She claimed the drugs were not hers, but belonged to “Chris.”  She said she was going to meet “Chris” in Rutland to exchange more drugs and money, so the police had a detective accompany her.  “Chris” showed up at the predicted time, and the informant identified his car.  The officer and informant pulled up beside him, and the informant confirmed his identity.  Shortly thereafter, an unmarked police cruiser stopped his car, and informant again identified Defendant as “Chris.”  At the station, “Chris”’s actual name was revealed, along with marijuana and cocaine. 

Defendant moved to suppress the evidence, claiming violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Chapter I, Articles 10 and 11 of the Vermont Constitution, and V.R.Cr.P. 3.  The trial court was unconvinced and determined that the Police had probable cause to make the arrest, however.

The Supreme Court reviewed the lower court’s findings of fact for clear error.  The Court noted that the constitutionality of a warrantless arrest is based on the “information possessed by the police at the time of initial detention.” The Court is highly deferential to the findings of the lower courts when those findings are based on witness testimony and the trial court has observed the witness and evaluated his or her credibility.  Here, the informant had described Defendant’s car and predicted when Defendant would arrive. The Court determined that the informant did provide the police with information which identified Defendant and predicted his behavior.  Further, the fact that the informant only knew Defendant as “Chris” did not destroy her credibility, as apparently “Chris” is a street name in these parts.   

Then, the Court reviewed the trial court’s legal conclusions de novo.  In determining whether the police had probable cause for the arrest, the Court examined whether the information known to the officer at the time was sufficient to “lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed and that the suspect committed it.”  When an informant is involved, the Court utilizes the two-prong test from Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U.S. 108 (1964). 

Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Aguilar–Spinelli two-pronged test in favor of the “totality of the circumstances” test articulated in Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983), Vermont has stuck with the older test for cases decided under the Vermont constitution.  The first prong looks at the informant’s basis of knowledge, while the second analyzes the informant’s credibility.  Because the informant’s information was based on first-hand experience in selling drugs in Rutland, the Court found that the informant had a sufficient basis of knowledge.  As for the second prong, the Court noted that informant had stacks of cash and drugs, and accurately described Defendant’s vehicle and predicted his arrival time.  These facts led the Court to conclude that the informant was credible. 

The Court also pointed out that the statements provided by the informant implicated herself as well as Defendant, meaning that she could be vulnerable to more serious charges such as conspiracy to sell or deliver drugs as opposed to mere possession.  The Court concluded that this increased informant’s credibility.  However, Defendant argued to the contrary, that the informant knew the courts would be more lenient with her if she ratted out someone else.  The Court disagreed: if it turned out the informant’s information was inaccurate, the Court noted, informant would have been in an even worse position, and the informant therefore had every incentive to provide accurate information.  

In light of the upcoming Columbus Day weekend, watch out for any guys named “Chris” along Route 7 offering to take you to new worlds.

—Christine Mathias 


  1. Are issues such as credibility, probable cause, or suppression~ when "decided under our Vermont Constitution"~ thus shielded from SCOTUS review?

  2. I think that depends. The rule of thumb as I understand it is that SCOTUS will not take up certiorari if the State Constitution is defining a higher right than what SCOTUS has identified or defined under the U.S. Constitution (here lies a lot of trespassing jurisprudence where the SCOV has defined Vermont's right to privacy more broadly than SCOTUS has with the Federal Constitution. But if the issue conflicts with a federal constitutional issue or statute, then I believe SCOTUS can and will take up the issue. Campaign finance reform is a good example of this where the Vermont law and some of its constitutional reasoning conflicted with the Court's interpretation of free speech.