State v. Lambert

Decision Date30 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-091,20-091
Citation255 A.3d 747
Parties STATE of Vermont v. Jeremy LAMBERT
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Diane C. Wheeler, Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney, St. Albans, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Allison N. Fulcher of Martin, Delaney & Ricci Law Group, Barre, for Defendant-Appellant.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.


¶ 1. Defendant Jeremy Lambert appeals his conviction on two counts of sexual assault against a minor, M.M. He argues that the trial court erred in admitting statements he made to police detectives because they failed to read him Miranda warnings and his statements were not given voluntarily. He further argues that the court infringed upon his right to a fair trial and to present a defense when it limited his cross-examination of M.M.’s mother and precluded two witnesses from testifying about statements allegedly made by M.M.’s mother. Because defendant was not in custody for the purposes of a Miranda warning, gave his statements to the detectives voluntarily, and failed to preserve his evidentiary claims, we affirm.

¶ 2. The record indicates the following. In 2017, defendant and his daughter moved in with his girlfriend and her three children, including fourteen-year-old M.M., in his girlfriend's home in Enosburgh. They all later moved into defendant's home in Swanton. In August 2017, law enforcement received a complaint from the Department for Children and Families that defendant sexually assaulted M.M. on two occasions.

¶ 3. In August 2017, Detectives Timothy Chagnon and Rick Stepien of the Northwest Unit for Special Investigations (NUSI) went to defendant's workplace to investigate these allegations. At about 12:45 in the afternoon, defendant's supervisor approached him and informed him that two detectives were in the office asking to speak to him. Upon entering the office, the detectives introduced themselves, and Detective Chagnon shook defendant's hand. They asked if there was a place where they could speak with him, and defendant responded "wherever." The detectives’ vehicle was parked outside, and they asked defendant if he would be willing to speak there. Defendant agreed.

¶ 4. The three men exited the building and entered the detectives’ unmarked service vehicle with the doors shut and windows rolled up. Detective Chagnon was in the driver's seat, defendant was in the front passenger seat, and Detective Stepien was in the back seat. Once inside, Detective Chagnon said to defendant: "[y]ou aren't under arrest, you're free to leave, you don't want to talk to me, you don't have to, but you probably know why we're here." Defendant told them he had no idea why they were there. Detective Chagnon informed defendant that NUSI had received a complaint from M.M. and asked him if he knew what it was about. He told them he did not know.

¶ 5. After inquiring about defendant's relationship with M.M., Detective Chagnon informed defendant that NUSI had received information about "some inappropriate touching between [defendant] and M.M." Defendant immediately denied that any touching occurred. Detective Chagnon asked if defendant had ever been alone with M.M., and defendant responded that he had been alone with her on several occasions to discuss her problematic behavior, which included sending inappropriate images of herself via text message and skipping the last day of school to spend it with a nineteen-year-old male. Defendant told the detectives that, after taking his own daughter to driver's education classes, he would talk to M.M. either at the school or at a "pull-off" near a creek or boat access. He explained that he would go to the pull-off because he wanted to avoid other parents overhearing his conversations with M.M. However, other cars were often present at the pull-off. Defendant told the detectives that on one occasion there was a red pickup truck with an older man inside, and on another, there was a small white sedan parked next to him.

¶ 6. After hearing this, Detective Chagnon falsely stated that the man in the red pickup truck saw defendant take M.M. down a path by the pull-off. Defendant vehemently denied any wrongdoing, admitting that he did go into the woods with M.M., but maintaining that nothing inappropriate occurred. Detective Chagnon continued with a stronger allegation: "[y]ou had her pull her pants down." Defendant replied, "[n]o, I did not." Detective Chagnon asked defendant why he went into the woods with M.M., and he responded that it was only to get out of the vehicle because it was hot that day, swearing that "nothing freaking happened." Defendant explained that he would never do something like that to a child because something similar had happened to him in the past. In an attempt to make it appear he was trying to mitigate defendant's culpability, Detective Chagnon responded that "sometimes the situation, you know, you become a victim, then you victimize someone else. It happens. I've seen it all the time. I've been doing this for 40 years, okay, and I can tell right now, you're not being completely honest." Defendant insisted that he was being honest. Detective Chagnon told defendant that his side of the story had "big discrepancies" and ended the conversation by saying "[w]ell, I don't know what to tell you. I think something happened there." Despite the accusations, defendant continued to insist that nothing inappropriate ever occurred.

¶ 7. Throughout the entire interview, defendant sat next to the unlocked door with nothing obstructing his path to leave. At one point, due to the heat, Detective Chagnon cracked his door open and told defendant he could do the same to let some air in. When the conversation ended, defendant shook Detective's Chagnon hand and exited the car. The entire interview lasted twenty-one minutes.

¶ 8. A few days later, defendant was charged by information with two counts of engaging in a sexual act while serving in a parental role. See 13 V.S.A. § 3252(e)(2). The affidavit of probable cause, which was written by Detective Chagnon, alleged that on two occasions, defendant took M.M. for a drive to talk about her inappropriate behavior and sexually assaulted her. The first incident allegedly occurred at a pull-off along the road. The second occurred somewhere in the woods after defendant dropped his daughter off at driver's education class.

¶ 9. Before trial, defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the detectives during the interview, arguing that they were obtained in violation of the Vermont and United States Constitutions. He specifically argued that the detectives were required to read him his Miranda rights because he was subjected to custodial interrogation. He also argued that the statements were not given voluntarily. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that (1) defendant was not in custody at the time of the questioning, so a reading of Miranda rights was not warranted, and (2) defendant gave his statements voluntarily because the totality of circumstances showed that the detectives did not create an atmosphere so coercive as to overbear defendant's free will.

¶ 10. A four-day jury trial was held in July 2019. The relevant events are as follows. While defense counsel was cross-examining M.M.’s mother, the following exchange occurred:

Court: [I]t's 4 o'clock. If you're going to finish with this witness today, we need to get to the central point. So I'd just ask you to move along.
[Attorney]: With respect, I'm going to need to take the time that I feel is necessary Judge, please.
Court: As long—the judge has the ability to limit cross-examination and direct testimony—
[Attorney]: I see.
Court: — to those relevant and material points.
[Attorney]: Well, it's unfortunate—and with respect to the Court, but it's the defense attorney that guides—
Court: I hear you—I hear you. And I'll try to be reasonable—
[Attorney]: And I understand (indiscernible).
Court: —but—but this witness has been on the stand a long time.
[Attorney]: Um-hum.
Court: You've conducted extensive cross-examination, and I'm just going to ask you to wrap this up in the next fifteen minutes.

Defense counsel neither made a formal objection during this exchange nor proffered a specific reason why he needed more time. In fact, it appears from the record that defense counsel concluded his cross-examination in less than the fifteen minutes provided.

¶ 11. The next day, defendant's sister testified on his behalf. At one point, defense counsel asked her whether there was "any talk of a deed at [defendant's] home" in her presence. As she began to answer the question, the State objected on relevance grounds. Defense counsel explained that the sister's testimony was relevant because it would show that mother's desire to be put on the deed to defendant's home was thwarted, which could have resulted in animosity towards defendant. The trial court concluded that the testimony was not relevant, explaining that if the "question was asked of Mother it might have been allowed as ... potential impeachment, but that's not the situation here."

¶ 12. Defense counsel then asked the court if a different witness could testify that she heard the mother say that "if [defendant] splits up with me, I'll make his life a living hell." The State objected, and the following exchange occurred:

[State]: It's—but the motive here goes to [M.M.] not to the mother. And the State believes that [statement] just goes down as confusing. It's not relevant. And it wasn't asked of the mother on direct or cross-examination while she was on the stand.
Court: I—the Court agrees.
Court: If the question had been asked and denied by Mom, then that might well be an appropriate question here. But it's not a fact in evidence at this point. And I don't think you can get it in through this witness.

Defense counsel responded "okay" and did not place an objection on the record. At the conclusion of trial, defendant was convicted on both counts of sexual assault.


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3 cases
  • Baldauf v. Vt. State Treasurer
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • April 30, 2021
  • State v. Barry
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • October 29, 2021
    ..."In reviewing a custody determination on a motion to suppress, we follow a two-step process." State v. Lambert, 2021 VT 23, ¶ 21, ––– Vt. ––––, 255 A.3d 747. We accept the trial court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous, and review the question of whether a suspect was in custody de......
  • State v. Barry
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • October 29, 2021
    ..."In reviewing a custody determination on a motion to suppress, we follow a two-step process." State v. Lambert, 2021 VT 23, ¶ 21, __Vt.__, 255 A.3d 747. We accept the trial court's findings fact unless clearly erroneous, and review the question of whether a suspect was in custody de novo. I......

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