A Vermont judge has dismissed criminal cases pending against three people in Orleans County, citing delays in bringing them to trial.
“The pending charges have caused the Defendant anxiety and embarrassment,” Judge Robert Mello wrote in a ruling issued Friday, in which he tossed charges against Christian Goulet.
Among the charges Goulet faced were allegedly illegally taking game with a light, eluding police and negligent operation of a vehicle — all pending since October 2017.
“A story about the charges has appeared in a local newspaper. He lives and works in a small town, where his customers have discussed the charges and judged him,” Mello wrote.
“He wants to join the army,” the judge added of Goulet, “but he cannot apply because the pending charges will probably cause him to fail a background check.”
David Sleigh, a St. Johnsbury attorney representing Goulet, earlier filed a motion to dismiss the charges as well as those for more than two dozen other clients. Sleigh argued the lack of jury trials due to Covid-19 in Orleans County had blocked their rights to speedy trials.
Goulet’s case, and the others Sleigh has been seeking to have dismissed, have been pending since before Gov. Phil Scott took emergency actions last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The governor lifted that emergency order in June. Still, Sleigh said, his clients’ cases have not been brought to trial.
Many courts around the state are fully open. But, some, including the one in Orleans County, are not yet open for jury trials. Court officials have said that the Newport courthouse lacks the necessary HVAC equipment to safely hold trials in that building.
Following a hearing earlier this month on Sleigh’s filings, Mello issued two rulings Friday, including the one in Goulet’s case and another in the case against two brothers, Matthew and Raymond Geoffroy, each charged in January 2017 with illegally taking game by shooting from a public highway.
“They have experienced the anxiety and prejudice associated with having waited nearly five years for trial to resolve misdemeanor charges against them,” the judge wrote in his ruling in the case against the Geoffroy brothers. “The Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Speedy Trial is granted.”
Sleigh said Friday he was pleased with the judge’s ruling, though he did not know what impact those decisions might have in cases against his other clients in which he is seeking to have the charges against them dismissed.
“We’ll just have to wait for the decisions to come,” he said. “I’m optimistic and hopeful, always.”
At the hearing earlier this month, Sleigh said, Goulet and the Geoffroys each testified about how the delay in bringing their case to trials had created hardships for them.
“This is the first instance where I’m aware that Covid-related delays have led to the dismissal of charges,” he said. “I think that will open for more if the state isn’t better at providing jury trials in the counties where they should occur.”
Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett could not be reached late Friday afternoon for comment.
Earlier this month, Franklin County Judge Martin Maley dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor cases in the “interest of justice” in that county due to a big backlog.
Maley cited delays in prosecuting those cases brought on by Covid-19, staffing shortages and the difficulties associated with the move to a new electronic filing system for courts.
John Campbell, executive director of the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said Friday that the recent rulings by Mello in Orleans County appeared to be based on specific facts in those two cases. He said he does not believe they will set a precedent.
Campbell said the cases dismissed in Franklin and Orleans counties deal with relatively low-level offenses. He said it would be different if cases where there are victims of more serious offenses getting tossed out over court backlogs and claims or delays.
“That’s going to be truly, truly concerning,” Campbell said. “We, as the state’s attorneys, clearly would be voicing our objections to any attempt to do that.”
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