A black man who spent more than eight months in jail before a judge ruled he was illegally searched by Colchester police is now suing the the town for discrimination.
Attorneys filed the federal suit last week on behalf of Brooklyn, N.Y. resident Ralph Moore, who Colchester police arrested during a March 2016 traffic stop. The suit alleges unlawful search and seizure and a violation of equal protection rights by the town, Officer Victor Bitca and former police Chief Jennifer Morrison and asks for damages beyond $75,000.
Colchester police Chief Doug Allen declined to comment on the case. Town manager Aaron Frank said he hasn’t had much time to “dig in” to the suit since receiving it last week but didn’t expect he could say much once he did, given the case is pending. Morrison didn’t return a call for comment.
Moore was a passenger in a car at the Colchester Dunkin’ Donuts when police arrived to investigate a trespassing complaint. Bitca pulled over the car for failure to signal and for having a defective brake light, though neither Moore nor the vehicle’s driver, a woman, matched descriptions of the alleged trespasser.
According to the complaint, Bitca said he was investigating the trespassing and asked for their identification. He then began a line of questioning unrelated to the complaint, the suit says, asking whether they had anything illegal in the vehicle and telling them to be “straight” with him.
Bitca said their presence at Dunkin’ parking lot “seemed suspicious,” and called for back-up after the driver allegedly consented to a search of the vehicle. When additional officers arrived, Bitca ordered Moore out of the vehicle, at which point the man “panicked” and ran, the lawsuit says, before officers chased him down and arrested him.
The suit says there’s no video or audio evidence showing the driver’s consent, and that police only asked her to sign a consent to search document after Moore’s arrest.
Moore faced a drug and firearm offense, as well a charge for providing false information to a police officer and one related to a warrant in New York. He was held on $100,000 bail, which the suit says he couldn’t pay.
He remained in custody until November 2016, when Judge Nancy Waples dismissed Moore’s first three charges after ruling that police didn’t have reasonable suspicion to expand their investigation beyond the trespassing complaint.
Moore and his attorneys believe Bitca’s suspicion of Moore was based on race.
“To me, it’s the definition of racial profiling,” Appel said. “What officers have been known to do, whether intentionally or not, is to superimpose their bias – implicit or explicit – instead of using their trained investigative skills to discern the objective evidence that somebody is up to something.
“Just because their black that doesn’t cut it under the constitution,” Appel continued.
He later added, “If we don’t respect the fundamental charter of how we’re supposed to do business, we’re in deep doo-doo.”
In support of the claim, Moore’s attorneys pointed to a 2017 study titled, “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” which examined three years’ worth of data and posited that black drivers in Vermont are four times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white drivers.
That report came under scrutiny earlier this year from a Montpelier-based research group that criticized the author’s methodology and prompted a call from the Vt. Associate of Chiefs of Police to call for the Vermont Legislature to fund another statewide study, Seven Days reported last week.
In a rebuttal, the study’s authors, University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino and Cornell University’s Nancy Brooks, accused critics of downplaying evidence of racial bias within the analysis.
Colchester was one of the 29 towns included in the initial study. According to 2015 data, officers here stopped black drivers at a rate 0.5 percent higher than the black share of the population in Chittenden County, according to data provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In other words, although only about 2.9 percent of the county’s population is black, those drivers made up 3.4 percent of Colchester’s stops. Eight towns included in the study showed a lower discrepancy than seen in Colchester, but the vast majority (20 towns) had higher differences.
Meanwhile, black drivers were four times as likely to be arrested in Colchester after a stop compared to white drivers – .4 percent compared to .1 percent. Asked about the data at the time, Morrison was hesitant to rely too heavily on these numbers, noting CPD’s lone arrest on a black driver in 2015 accounted for the .4 percent figure.
She added that all officers receive some sort of implicit bias training, and several members are qualified to give the course to their co-workers.
The suit acknowledges Colchester’s data was “not as grossly disproportionate” as others in Vermont but says the study still revealed that CPD over-policed people of color. Appel added that if the case moves forward, he plans to seek in discovery additional years of Colchester’s data.
Whether ofc. Bitca has been involved with any of CPD’s previous arrests on black drivers is unclear; Colchester did not release specific officer totals to the study’s authors and is not required to under the state’s data-keeping legislation, passed in 2014.
“We don’t routinely monitor that,” Morrison told the Sun in 2017. “If there was a concern about an individual officer, we would hear about it long before the dataset was available.”