Vt. Supreme Court overturns drug case for searchBy WILSON RING
The Associated Press | August 03,2013MONTPELIER — A man convicted of cocaine possession was illegally taken into custody in Rutland before consenting to be searched, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday in overturning his conviction.
In its decision, the court ruled that a trooper who threatened to take the man, Asim Betts, into custody while the trooper applied for a search warrant didn’t have the probable cause to do so.
Betts agreed to be searched only after he had been told he would be placed in handcuffs and taken to a Vermont State Police barracks in Rutland while the trooper applied for the search warrant.
“It is also well established that consent is not voluntary when it is a mere submission to a claim of lawful authority,” said the court’s decision.
In June 2010, Betts was a passenger in a car that the trooper had been watching after receiving a report from a confidential informant that the driver had been seen with cocaine. Several hours later the car was stopped in Rutland for a traffic violation.
The driver and Betts did not immediately agree to be searched. The trooper told them that if they would not give consent, he was “prepared to seize their persons and the vehicle to apply for a warrant.” While that was under way, he told them, the men would be handcuffed.
Later, after they had returned to the state police barracks, the trooper found cocaine outside the vehicle that Betts admitted belonged to him.
Betts was charged with felony possession of cocaine. He later reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to up to 60 days in jail.
He claimed he had been subject to an illegal search, but the Rutland Superior Court rejected that claim. As part of his deal with prosecutors, he reserved the right to appeal that decision.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court, saying Betts agreed to a search only after the trooper said he’d be taken to police barracks to await a warrant, and that the trooper lacked the authority to take him there without cause.
“Neither the informant’s tip nor the trooper’s lengthy surveillance or later interaction with defendant provided probable cause,” the court wrote.
Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office defended Betts, said Betts’ last known address was in Hartford, Conn. Valerio did not know whether Betts served his sentence or if Betts knew his conviction had been overturned.
While the court overturned Betts’ conviction, the case didn’t set any legal precedent, he said.
“What this does is give another set of factual circumstances to advise law enforcement and (defense lawyers) of what gives rise to probable cause in Vermont,” Valerio said.MORE IN Vermont News
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