By Allen Gilbert, executive director, ACLU-VT
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont has filed suit in federal court against a Shelburne police officer who ticketed a driver for arguing with him, even though the driver had done nothing wrong, and then the office persisted in giving inaccurate testimony about the incident in traffic court.
Rod MacIver of North Ferrisburgh was driving through Shelburne on a December night in 2012 when Shelburne police officer Jason Lawton followed him for a few miles and pulled him over. Lawton told MacIver that he had seen him run a red light. When MacIver said that he hadn’t run a red light – and, in fact, never had in his life – and that Lawton must have made a mistake, Lawton asked him if “this is how this is going to go.” After MacIver insisted that he hadn’t broken the law, Lawton wrote him a ticket for the alleged violation, noting on the ticket that MacIver had “requested” it.
“What Rod encountered is everyone’s nightmare,” said Allen Gilbert, ACLU of Vermont executive director. “He was out at night, alone, and was stopped by a cop who accused him of doing something he hadn’t done. And when he told the cop that he hadn’t broken the law, he got a ticket for arguing.”
Things got worse for MacIver after he received the ticket. When he complained to the Shelburne police about Lawton’s behavior, police Sergeant Allen Fortin misrepresented what a cruiser video of the incident showed. “You were in violation,” Fortin told MacIver in an email, “so please feel free to contest the ticket.” Fortin added that MacIver “asked for” the ticket, and that Fortin would like a judge to “see what we have to deal with.”
Weeks later, when MacIver was able to obtain the cruiser video of the incident, it plainly showed that he had not run the red light.
At the traffic court hearing on the ticket, Lawton gave sworn testimony that MacIver had run the red light. When MacIver played the cruiser video for the hearing officer, the hearing officer ruled in favor of MacIver and demanded an explanation from Lawton why he had testified to something that hadn’t happened. The officer said his testimony represented his version of what he thought had happened. Under further questioning, Lawton admitted that he knew prior to the hearing that MacIver had not committed a traffic violation.
“Cases like this get our attention,” said ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Dan Barrett, who represents MacIver along with Manchester attorney Stephen Saltonstall. “Police officers are the same as any other public servant. No one should fear speaking their minds to them, and no one should have to wonder if they are going to be pulled over for an imaginary traffic violation.”
Gilbert added that the case shows the weakness of police oversight in Vermont. “When someone complains about a police officer’s conduct, there should be an independent, neutral assessment of the complaint. What happened to Mr. MacIver shows why independent oversight is essential to ensure police integrity and professionalism – factors that are critical for good policing.”
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court, asks that the court declare that Lawton illegally seized MacIver when he pulled him over and that the officer violated MacIver’s right to free speech by issuing him a traffic ticket as punishment for arguing. The suit also seeks damages for the violation of MacIver’s rights. Court filings in the case, including the police video of the stop, can be found on the ACLU–VT website at www.acluvt.org/docket/#maciver.