220 A.3d 759 (Vt. 2019), 18-180, State v. Berard

Docket Nº:18-180
Citation:220 A.3d 759, 2019 VT 65
Opinion Judge:REIBER, C.J.
Party Name:STATE of Vermont v. Stephanie BERARD
Attorney:David Tartter, Deputy State’s Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee. Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua S. O’Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.
Judge Panel:PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Carroll, JJ., and Morris, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned CARROLL, J., dissenting.
Case Date:September 27, 2019
Court:Supreme Court of Vermont

Page 759

220 A.3d 759 (Vt. 2019)

2019 VT 65

STATE of Vermont

v.

Stephanie BERARD

No. 18-180

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 27, 2019

Page 760

On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Criminal Division, David A. Howard, J.

David Tartter, Deputy State’s Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua S. O’Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Carroll, JJ., and Morris, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

OPINION

REIBER, C.J.

[¶ 1] Defendant Stephanie Berard appeals the trial court’s denial of her motion for judgment of acquittal following her conviction for impeding or hindering a police officer. We reverse and vacate defendant’s conviction.

I. Facts

[¶ 2] The State presented the following evidence at trial. On July 14, 2016, Trooper Wayne Godfrey with the Vermont State Police directed defendant to pull over her car after he observed her committing traffic violations. Defendant pulled into a store parking lot, opened her door, and began to get out. The officer told defendant to get back in her car, which she eventually did.

[¶ 3] Trooper Godfrey then approached defendant on the driver’s side of the car. Defendant asked him to call another officer because she recognized him as someone she had interacted with on a previous occasion, when he "maced" her. The officer instructed defendant to provide him with her driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Defendant replied that she had the requested documents in her car, but she would not provide them to him and asked him to call another officer. Trooper Godfrey continued to instruct defendant to provide the documents, and defendant refused to provide them to him. During their exchange, Trooper Godfrey called for another officer. Their exchange— the officer’s requesting the documents and defendant’s

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refusing to provide them— proceeded for around six minutes, until the second officer arrived. Trooper Godfrey estimated at trial that he asked for defendant’s information around twenty-two times within those six minutes and said her delay in producing the documents was unreasonable. As Trooper Godfrey testified and the video shows, defendant was "[c]ombative" and "uncooperative" and her voice was "escalated and raised." Trooper Godfrey recalled at trial that there had been an earlier encounter between them.

[¶ 4] When the second officer arrived, defendant retrieved the documents and extended them out of the car. At that point, Trooper Godfrey grabbed defendant’s arm and physically pulled her out of the car. He arrested defendant for impeding a law enforcement officer in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 3001(a).

[¶ 5] In February 2018, defendant was found guilty following a jury trial. She filed a motion for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c). The trial court denied the motion. The court reasoned that defendant had no legal right to refuse to provide the documents, and it had no basis to disturb the jury’s conclusion that defendant’s refusal hindered the officer. The trial court sentenced defendant to pay a $400 fine, observing that "the penalty here, in large part, is the felony conviction." Defendant timely appealed.

[¶ 6] On appeal, defendant makes three arguments: the State did not prove that defendant’s refusal to provide the documents was itself a criminal act; defendant did not hinder the officer in investigating the alleged traffic infractions; and extending criminal liability to failure to provide a driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance would render the impeding-officer statute unconstitutionally vague. The State responds that defendant had no legal right to refuse to provide her documents, and the refusal need not have been a criminal act in order to constitute a violation of the impeding-officer statute; defendant’s actions did hinder the officer in the exercise of his lawful authority; and the trial court did not commit plain error in failing to find that the impeding-officer statute was unconstitutionally vague as applied to this situation.

[¶ 7] We review the denial of a judgment of acquittal de novo. State v. Ellis, 2009 VT 74, ¶ 21, 186 Vt. 232, 979 A.2d 1023. We consider "whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the State and excluding any modifying evidence, fairly and reasonably tends to convince a reasonable trier of fact that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. (quotation omitted). "Judgment of acquittal is appropriate only if the State has failed to put forth any evidence to substantiate a jury verdict." Id. (quotation omitted). We review statutory interpretation without deference to the trial court. Wright v. Bradley, 2006 VT 100, ¶ 6, 180 Vt. 383, 910 A.2d 893 ("Issues of statutory interpretation are subject to de novo review.").

II. Analysis

[¶ 8] Defendant was convicted of violating 13 V.S.A. § 3001(a), which provides: "A person who hinders [a] ... law enforcement ... officer acting under the authority of this State ... shall be imprisoned not more than three years or fined not more than $500.00, or both." Violation of § 3001 is a felony. Id. § 1 (defining felony as any offense with at least two-year maximum imprisonment).

[¶ 9] "A person ‘hinders’ an officer when the person’s actions illegally interfere with the officer’s ability to perform duties within the scope of the officer’s authority."

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State v. Harris, 152 Vt. 507, 509, 568 A.2d 360, 361 (1989); see also State v. Stone, 170 Vt. 496, 499, 756 A.2d 785, 788 (2000) ("We have defined ‘hinder’ as ‘to slow down or to make more difficult someone’s progress towards accomplishing an objective; to delay, or impede or interfere with that person’s progress.’ " (quotation omitted)). In prior impeding-officer cases, the unlawful hindering action was a substantial interference. See State v. Neisner, 2010 VT 112, ¶ 21, 189 Vt. 160, 16 A.3d 597 (upholding impeding-officer conviction where defendant’s actions "significantly impeded" officer); State v. Oren, 162 Vt. 331, 336, 647 A.2d 1009, 1012 (1994) (holding that when defendant blocked officer’s vehicle with her car, ran toward officer’s car while shouting obscenities, tried to grab officer’s badge, and pounded on officer’s car, resulting in officer’s inability to leave until local police arrived to help half an hour later, she "far exceeded a reasonable response to the circumstances" and violated impeding-officer statute); State v. Dion, 154 Vt. 420, 425, 578 A.2d 101, 104 (1990), overruled on other grounds by

State v. Brooks, 163 Vt. 245, 658 A.2d 22 (1995) (upholding impeding-officer conviction where defendant threatened game warden and pulled boy that warden was attempting to arrest from officer’s grasp).

[¶ 10] According to our prior holdings, a defendant violates § 3001 if the defendant (1) takes an action that the defendant has no legal right to do and (2) that action actually results in impeding an officer in the lawful execution of the officer’s duties. Neisner, 2010 VT 112, ¶ 14, 189 Vt. 160, 16 A.3d 597 (noting that "impeding charge requires an unlawful act that actually hinders the officer in an investigation"). This test was first established in State v. Buck, in which we stated: "We regard the test [for whether the defendant violated § 3001] as being one of whether or not the [defendant] has a legal right to take the action which results in impeding the officer." 139 Vt. 310, 313, 428 A.2d 1090, 1093 (1981). We have repeatedly affirmed this test as the proper analysis under § 3001. See, e.g., Neisner, 2010 VT 112, ¶ 13, 189 Vt. 160, 16 A.3d 597 (reiterating Buck test as quoted in Stone, 170 Vt. at 500, 756 A.2d at 788); Dion, 154 Vt. at 424, 578 A.2d at 103 (affirming Buck test as quoted in Harris, 152 Vt. at 508-09, 568 A.2d at 360-61).

[¶ 11] There is no question that defendant’s refusal was unlawful. Under 23 V.S.A. § 1012(b), a driver must produce his or her driver’s license and registration upon the request of an enforcement officer during a valid traffic stop. And 23 V.S.A. § 800(c) requires that a driver must also provide proof of valid car insurance. Thus, defendant was legally required to provide her documents upon the officer’s request.

[¶ 12] However, we do not conclude that defendant’s refusal— which essentially was an intentional civil violation— may, without more, constitute a violation of § 3001. We base our determination on the statutory language and principles of statutory construction. "In construing a statute, our paramount goal is to discern and implement the intent of the Legislature." Miller v. Miller, 2005 VT 89, ¶ 14, 178 Vt. 273, 882 A.2d 1196. "To determine that intent, we must examine and consider fairly, not just isolated sentences or phrases, but the whole and every part of the statute, together with other statutes standing in pari materia with it, as parts of a unified statutory system." Brown v. W.T. Martin Plumbing & Heating, Inc., 2013 VT 38, ¶ 20, 194 Vt. 12, 72 A.3d 346 (quotation omitted). "If the intent of the Legislature is apparent on the face of the statute because the plain language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we implement the statute according to that plain language."

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Flint v. Dep’t of Labor, 2017 VT 89, ¶ 5, 205 Vt. 558, 177 A.3d 1080. "Conversely, if the statute is ambiguous, we ascertain legislative intent through consideration of the entire statute, including its subject matter, effects and consequences, as well as the reason and spirit of the law." Harris v. Sherman, 167 Vt. 613, 614, 708 A.2d 1348, 1349 (1998) (mem.). In interpreting a criminal statute, we keep in mind that...

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9 practice notes
  • Green Mountain Fireworks, LLC v. Town of Colchester, 080720 VTSC, 2019-131
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • August 7, 2020
    ...to purchasers who do not have a permit for a "supervised public display." Id. § 3132(b); see State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶¶ 12-13, ___ Vt. ___, 220 A.3d 759 (reading plain language of statute in context of text as a whole). This is because, beyond su......
  • State v. Gauthier, 072420 VTSC, 2019-233
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • July 24, 2020
    ...our conclusion that an individual released on furlough is not incarcerated for the purpose of § 5407(e). State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶ 12, __Vt.__, 220 A.3d 759 (explaining that to determine intent of Legislature, "we must examine and consider fairly, not just......
  • State v. Nelson, 101620 VTSC, 2018-333
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 16, 2020
    ...v. U.S., 136 S.Ct. 709, 715 (2016). We review questions of statutory interpretation without deference. State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶ 7, ___ Vt.___, 220 A.3d ¶ 47. We conclude that, for the purposes of § 3252(d), the State need not prove that defendant had decision-makin......
  • State v. Berard, 092719 VTSC, 2018-180
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • September 27, 2019
    ...2019 VT 65 State of Stephanie Berard No. 2018-180 Supreme Court of Vermont September 27, 2019 On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Criminal Division David A. Howard, J. David Tartter, Deputy State's Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee. Matthew V......
  • Free signup to view additional results
9 cases
  • Green Mountain Fireworks, LLC v. Town of Colchester, 080720 VTSC, 2019-131
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • August 7, 2020
    ...to purchasers who do not have a permit for a "supervised public display." Id. § 3132(b); see State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶¶ 12-13, ___ Vt. ___, 220 A.3d 759 (reading plain language of statute in context of text as a whole). This is because, beyond su......
  • State v. Gauthier, 072420 VTSC, 2019-233
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • July 24, 2020
    ...our conclusion that an individual released on furlough is not incarcerated for the purpose of § 5407(e). State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶ 12, __Vt.__, 220 A.3d 759 (explaining that to determine intent of Legislature, "we must examine and consider fairly, not just......
  • State v. Nelson, 101620 VTSC, 2018-333
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 16, 2020
    ...v. U.S., 136 S.Ct. 709, 715 (2016). We review questions of statutory interpretation without deference. State v. Berard, 2019 VT 65, ¶ 7, ___ Vt.___, 220 A.3d ¶ 47. We conclude that, for the purposes of § 3252(d), the State need not prove that defendant had decision-makin......
  • State v. Berard, 092719 VTSC, 2018-180
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court of Vermont
    • September 27, 2019
    ...2019 VT 65 State of Stephanie Berard No. 2018-180 Supreme Court of Vermont September 27, 2019 On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Criminal Division David A. Howard, J. David Tartter, Deputy State's Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee. Matthew V......
  • Free signup to view additional results