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Vermont Supreme Court Reviews the Use of “Standard” Conditions of Probations

In State v. Putnam, 2015 VT 113 (Sept. 4, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a conviction for grossly negligent operation of a vehicle, but struck down several probation conditions.

Issue: Defendant appealed his conviction on grounds of lack of sufficient evidence. He also appealed the “standard” and “special” conditions of probation imposed.

Holding: After a brief analysis, the Court upheld the conviction, finding there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s decision. The focus of the Court’s lengthy decision was a review of the “standard” conditions of probation. The Court held that there must be an individualized analysis of whether to apply probation conditions. In particular, a probation condition that restricts lawful conduct must be reasonably related to a defendant’s particular characteristics and conviction, even if it is on the statutory list of permissible conditions or on the template probation and plea agreement forms.

The Court reviewed the conditions imposed in this case, noting that the sentencing court is not required to make specific findings for each condition, only to exercise proper discretion based on the record. It held that conditions A, F, G, H, and J were properly related to Defendant’s probation officer supervising and assisting the defendant in leading a law-abiding life, and would be within the trial court’s discretion in any case involving probation. The Court rejected condition C, requiring work or work searches/training, because Defendant was on disability, and there was no evidence he could work, that his conviction was connected to his lack of employment, or that working would reduce his risk of reoffending. Conditions D, Q, and R were struck because they were inapplicable under the terms of the probation order. Condition E, requiring Defendant support his dependents and meet family obligations, was struck as unrelated. Condition L, prohibiting buying, possessing or using drugs, was upheld since it prohibited criminal conduct. Conditions M and P, requiring alcohol and drug testing, were struck because they prohibit otherwise lawful conduct without any relationship with his conviction. The Court upheld condition O, operating without a license, holding that since Defendant was convicted of a motor vehicle crime, the sentencing court could reasonably conclude this condition was reasonably related to his rehabilitation. It also upheld condition S as reasonably related to his rehabilitation since it required him to comply with court orders to pay any copays for legal services in this case. Lastly, the Court rejected a requirement that Defendant attend “any counseling or training program” designated by his probation officer on the grounds that it was an overbroad delegation of authority that was not supported by the findings. The sentencing court made particularized findings regarding Defendant’s mental health and need for counseling, including anger management. However, the condition was not limited to address those concerns and gave the probation officer impermissibly unfettered authority.

Dissent: Skoglund, J. dissented in part, with regard to Condition S, finding that it lacked any reasonable relationship to Defendant’s crime or rehabilitation.

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