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Supreme Court Reviews Conviction for DUI, Aggravated Assault, Reckless Endangerment, and Simple Assault

In State of Vermont v. Jason L. Gagne, 2016 VT 68 (June 10, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order denying Gagne’s motion to suppress the results of his alcohol breath test, vacated and remanded his conviction for DUI, affirmed his convictions for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, and vacated the conviction for simple assault.

Issue: After chasing an elderly couple across town and pointing a rifle at then through his car window, Gagne was arrested and his conversation with his lawyer was inadvertently recorded by the police. After a jury trial, he was convicted of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment, DUI, and negligent operation of a vehicle. Gagne appealed, arguing that the trial court should have granted his motion to suppress the results of the breath test, that the trial court did not properly instruct the jury on the definition of the word “threat,” and that convictions for aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless endangerment for the same conduct constitutes a violation of Double Jeopardy.

Holding: On the suppression motion, the Court found that a reasonable person in Gagne’s position would feel inhibited in conferring with his lawyer, especially since Gagne repeatedly told the police officer that he believed everything was being recorded and the police officer neither confirmed nor denied his belief. With regard to Gagne’s challenge of the jury instructions on aggravated assault, the Court found that while the trial court made a mistake in requiring the State to prove “that [defendant] placed another person in fear of imminent bodily injury,” any error that might have occurred was harmless – defendant would only have been harmed if a reasonable jury could conclude that his actions would not cause a reasonable person to fear imminent bodily harm. With regard to defendant’s challenge of the jury instructions on simple assault by physical menace, the Court found that the instruction did not constitute plain error, since the instruction appropriately placed the jury’s focus on the objective nature of Gagne’s actions. Finally, the Court found that the Legislature intended to allow multiple convictions/punishments for a single act with regard to aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, but that simple assault and aggravated assault turn on the same elements. Because defendant could not be convicted of both, the Court vacated the lesser conviction and allowed the aggravated assault conviction to stand.

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