State v. Dragon, 2021-170

Citation2021-170
Case DateJune 17, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

State of Vermont
v.

Robert Dragon III*

No. 2021-170

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 17, 2022


In the case title, an asterisk (*) indicates an appellant and a double asterisk (**) indicates a cross-appellant. Decisions of a three-justice panel are not to be considered as precedent before any tribunal.

Appealed From: Superior Court, Caledonia Unit, Criminal Division CASE NO. 501-9-17 Cacr Trial Judge: Mary Miles Teachout

ENTRY ORDER

In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

Defendant appeals his convictions by a jury of two felonies and five misdemeanors. On appeal, he claims that he was deprived of due process because the court discussed certain matters relating to trial procedure with the prosecutor and defense counsel before defendant arrived at the beginning of trial. He further claims that the court coerced the jurors into entering a verdict. We conclude that these arguments lack merit and affirm.

In September 2017, defendant engaged police in a high-speed chase on Vermont Route 15 in Danville. As a result, he was charged with grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle, eluding a law enforcement officer, driving a vehicle with a suspended license, operating a vehicle at excessive speed, and three counts of violating conditions of release.

The State presented the following evidence at trial. Around 8:00 a.m. on September 1, 2017, a Vermont State Police trooper was on patrol in Danville when he saw a blue Ford Focus drive by with defendant, whom he knew from previous encounters, sitting in the front passenger seat. After learning that the registration plate on the Focus was linked to a green Jeep Cherokee, the trooper pulled out behind the vehicle and activated his blue lights. The driver did not pull over, and the trooper activated his siren. The trooper saw defendant and the driver switch seats. The Focus then accelerated dramatically, passing a tractor-trailer and running another car off the road. Defendant reached speeds of up to one hundred miles per hour and drove in the wrong lane around curves as he proceeded west on Route 15. Several oncoming vehicles pulled off the road to avoid being struck. Defendant eventually turned onto Noyestar Road, almost hitting a parked Caledonia County Sheriff's Department cruiser as he did so. At that point, the trooper discontinued the chase because it was 8:15 a.m. and there was a school nearby. He and the chief deputy sheriff looked for defendant along Noyestar Road and then went to defendant's home, but they were unable to locate him that day. He was later served with a citation by a Hardwick police officer. The State played the cruiser video of the chase, during which the trooper narrated his observations, including the point when defendant took over the wheel. The trooper testified that he was "[a] hundred percent confident" that defendant was driving the vehicle during the

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chase. The chief deputy sheriff testified that about a year after the chase, he heard defendant comment that "if I'm not caught behind the wheel-if you're not stopping me behind the wheel, that you can't prove it's me." The jury found defendant guilty on all counts and he was sentenced to two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years to serve. This appeal followed.

Defendant first argues the court violated his right to be present during trial by discussing the charges and various logistical issues with the prosecutor and defense counsel before defendant arrived on the morning of trial and before the jury entered the courtroom. The transcript shows that the court and the attorneys first discussed which charges the State planned to present to the jury. The prosecutor then stated that he planned to play the cruiser video during the trooper's testimony, and the attorneys discussed where they would stand and where the screen would be positioned. The prosecutor said, "[t]here's no audio the first thirty seconds and then with about twenty seconds left, the officer pulls over and there's some talking between himself and another officer. So I think we had discussed my just shutting off the audio at that point." Defense counsel did not object to this procedure and stipulated to the admission into evidence of the disc containing the video. The court and the attorneys then discussed how long the trial would take, the prosecutor's plan to use certified copies of the docket entries in defendant's prior criminal cases, and whether excessive speed was a lesser-included offense of grossly negligent operation. At that point, defense counsel noted that defendant had not yet arrived, and the court went into recess so that defense counsel could attempt to contact defendant. Approximately fifteen minutes later, the jury entered and trial began; defendant evidently had arrived by that point.[*]

Defendant argues that the discussion in his absence violated his constitutional right to be present at all phases of trial. He contends that he was prejudiced by the violation because if he had been present, he would have strongly...

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