Vermont Judge Finds A Different Kind Of Scapegoat
August 23, 2016 (Fault Lines) – A few weeks ago, Chris Seaton wrote about Ernest Matthews, who found himself on the wrong end of a political message from a Georgia judge. Matthews got into a scuffle with a police officer arresting him on an outstanding warrant. Despite an agreement for probation, Richmond County Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett put Matthews in jail, telling him he picked the wrong time to cross law enforcement.
Some police officers were shot around the time Matthews was sentenced. As tragic as that may be, it seems a little unfair to hold Matthews responsible for those shootings.
A judge in Vermont recently did the same thing, but in the opposite direction. While that judge’s actions may be more palatable to some, they are just as unfair.
South Burlington Vermont police officers received a call back in May about an erratic driver. An officer responded and pulled over Kareem Louard, a black male from a nearby town.
As [Officer Dale] Crispin began questioning Louard, he smelled marijuana and alcohol. Louard acknowledged that he had smoked marijuana and had a drink before driving, according to an affidavit Crispin later filed in court. As other officers arrived, Crispin handcuffed Louard and arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Louard’s blood alcohol level was a .09, over the limit for driving in Vermont. He also had a suspended driver’s license, which means don’t drive in Vermont at all, drunk or sober. Without more details, it’s hard to say if it was a good drunk driving case. But Louard’s admitting to drinking and smoking weed before driving probably made this more of a plea than a trial. And there is very little defense to getting caught driving with a license that has been suspended.
So Louard cut a deal. He agreed to plead guilty to negligent operation and driving under a suspended license in exchange for prosecutors dropping the DUI and serving 11 days on a road crew. Not a great result, but not a bad result. Louard’s lawyer, Lucas Collins, said the deal was reached in part because a jealous ex-husband of Louard’s passenger made up the accusation of erratic driving. Louard also handled the stop well.
The traffic stop was tense, Collins told the judge. “My client, to his credit, behaved very well, was very compliant, was polite, did not give them any trouble,” Collins said. “This was a false report from a jealous ex … All things being equal we gave him a little bit of a benefit for behaving well in a [difficult] situation.”
But the deal was not to be. Like the Georgia judge discussed earlier, Vermont Judge Gregory Rainville decided to reject the plea agreement, based on the nationwide problems between the police and black men. The result was a little different, though. Instead of a harsher punishment, Louard walked.
All that was left was for Rainville to inform Louard of his rights and to make sure he understood the legal process before accepting the agreement.
But Rainville had another idea.
“I’m going to dismiss [the charges] in the interest of justice. You’re done,” Rainville told Louard.
He explained: “And here’s why: You’ve been watching the TV. You know what’s going on in the world. And you’re a black man. This could have gone really bad, really quick if you had gotten your back up about this or gotten upset or just got overly excited. You’d probably have gotten hurt, and they might have as well, and you did everything by the book. And that’s more than a reasonable person could be required to do under the circumstances. So I think you deserve a break here. You’re done.”
Because Louard didn’t bow up to the police, he gets a free pass on driving drunk with a suspended license. That’s a problem on both ends of the spectrum.
On one hand, the nation is not protesting because people confronting cops are getting shot by cops. They are protesting because people are getting shot by cops. There is a big difference. Regardless of whether one is more right than the other, Louard’s actions shouldn’t be dictating whether he gets shot or not. The police make that decision.
On the other hand, Louard didn’t really do anything all that special. He did what he was asked to do at a traffic stop. Unlike what Judge Rainville thinks, that is what “reasonable people” are supposed to do. Have things gone so far that we are now handing out medals to people for not acting like assholes?
Local police are probably perplexed at this one.
Rainville’s decision left some local law enforcement officials scratching their heads.
“Frankly, I’m befuddled,” South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple said in an interview. “I don’t know where the decision came from, nor how it’s fair and equitable to others in the system. I understand if the judge finds a misstep by our officer, if rights weren’t followed. It’s something I’ve never encountered before and certainly caused confusion for our officer. My response to the officer is simply: Judges make decisions from the bench and we don’t have any control over what a judge does or does not do.”
What exactly was Judge Rainville doing? Getting in on the politics, obviously. As a judge, he has a special spot in the courtroom. Everyone has to listen to him and, to some degree, everyone has to do what he says. When you have a bully pulpit, you might as well bully.
A judge exercising mercy, or cutting a deserving person a break, or trying to actually to restore some fairness to the criminal justice system is great. That isn’t what Rainville was doing. He was sending a message. A message that was kind of lost, since there haven’t been a whole lot of police shootings in Vermont.
Some will applaud him because they like the message. But those same people better applaud Judge Padgett down in Georgia. It’s not about the message. It’s about the messenger. If your job is to rule on cases, you need to be ruling on cases. You rule on cases based on the law and the facts in front of you, not on whatever is going on in society.
Courtrooms are for law. Facebook is for your political opinion. Keep them separate.