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State v. Berard

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 27, 2019

State of Vermont
Stephanie Berard

          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

          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 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." 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.' " (citation 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 ...

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