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Visiting Massachusetts is Not Grounds for Reasonable Suspicion of Drug Activity

In State v. Winters, 2015 VT 116, (September 4, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded a criminal case, based on a challenge to the trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence.

Issue: Defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence of drugs, arguing that it was discovered during an illegal seizure.

Holding: The Court held that Defendant was illegally seized. Defendant was questioned twice while stopped in a rest area, first about driving with a suspended license and second about drugs. The Court held that the second encounter, where the drug evidence was found, was an illegal seizure. It held that a reasonable person would feel they were subjected to a particularized inquiry and were not free to leave due to the individualized, accusatory, and intrusive nature of the questions, referencing Defendant’s prior drug history, during the second encounter. It also held that the police officer lacked a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity since the investigation regarding driving with a suspended license had concluded and the only evidence of drug related crimes was a comment that the Defendant had driven from Massachusetts and a conviction seven years earlier.

Dissent: Dooley, J., issued a lengthy dissent, reviewing case law on seizures and arguing that the majority opinion creates a per se rule that pointed questions about possible criminal activity transforms a consensual encounter into a seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. He found that the second encounter was consensual, until Defendant disclosed he was carrying needles, which provided reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when considered with the totality of the circumstances.

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