(Host) A driver whose car slid and tipped over in a ditch last month has helped to refuel a debate about whether police in the Upper Valley town of Hartford have been too heavy-handed in some recent arrests.
In the first of a two-part series, VPR’s Charlotte Albright looks into what happened on the night of June fifth.
(Albright) Darrek Daoust of Quechee is a contractor and owner of a tourism business. On that night, after what he says was an exhausting work week, he stopped by a restaurant for pizza and wine.
(Daoust) "Unfortunately I was tired and literally turned the corner going up my street and up a hill at slow speed and just didn’t correct back enough, and my front wheel caught in a ditch. I tipped my van on its side, didn’t break a window, didn’t hurt anything. I had my safety belt on, literally unclipped, climbed out of the vehicle, I was two hundred yards from my house. I walked home."
(Albright) And, he says, went to bed, planning to retrieve the van in the morning.
Around 2:30, Daoust says, two police officers knocked on his door, following a call from someone who had seen the abandoned vehicle. He says the officers asked him his name, but did not ask if he was OK. He says they ordered him to come with them to the police station. Daoust claims police did not accuse him of a crime, and they didn’t have a warrant or a written citation. So he told them he was tired, and would deal with the van the next day. He also refused to let the police in. What happened next, he says, was shocking.
(Daoust) "That screen door sprung open, I was dragged out by my wrists, put on the ground, beaten, I guess, with a flashlight, with a baton or flashlight. I had my face shoved into the gravel, the crushed rock driveway. I had a knee in my back and I was punched in the head twice."
(Albright) Daoust says he suffered injuries that were treated the next day at a local hospital’s emergency room.
Police Chief Glenn Cutting has a slightly different explanation. He claims Daoust was told that he was under arrest. Here’s how the chief tells the story:
(Cutting) "At that point they’re thinking he’s a drunk driver, they’re going to take him into custody. So they go to do that, he resists at that point, so there’s a brief struggle out the doorway into the driveway. So, of course, they had to put him down on the ground, which is pretty common. And he’s fighting to have his hands released, he’s holding his hands under his stomach. So they’re having a real hard time getting his hands around. So they finally get him into custody and get him to the station."
(Albright) Cutting says he can’t release the incident report because it’s under investigation. Daoust says they never tested his alcohol level, or cited him with drunk driving. He was charged that night with leaving the scene of an accident.
Experts say it’s possible for police to arrest someone after discovering an abandoned vehicle. Michele Martinez-Campbell is a former federal prosecutor and now teaches at Vermont Law School.
She’s not familiar with the specifics in the Daoust case. But she says if police suspect drunkenness or negligence on the part of the driver of an abandoned vehicle, they might take time to investigate and then make an arrest. But she says the suspect does have the right to refuse to leave his home if police don’t have a warrant to search the house or to arrest him.
(Martinez-Campbell) "The only way the police could compel somebody to speak would be to subpoena them and have them appear in a grand jury or court at which time the individual could assert their fifth amendment right not to incriminate themselves."
(Albright) Daoust says the interrogation at the station did come to an abrupt halt when he asked if he needed a lawyer.
Police Chief Glenn Cutting does not dispute Daoust’s injuries. And he concedes that the first citation, for leaving the scene of an accident, was inappropriate, that Daoust should have been given a breath test and cited for DUI.
(Cutting) "They kind of lost focus in doing the DUI. They shifted gears to the leaving the scene of the accident thinking that, ‘He told us that he’s been drinking inside, so maybe we can’t do the DUI processing.’ And that’s kind of where it got off track."
(Albright) Daoust says it got off track the minute they pulled him out of his house.
(Daoust) "Even if I was, say I was drunk. So that’s a beatable offense?"
(Albright) The police rescinded the first summons with a letter of apology a week after Daoust was taken to the station. But two weeks later, Daoust got a different citation, charging him with negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
Professor Martinez-Campbell says that police do sometimes have to create confrontations-and controversy-in the course of an arrest.
(Martinez-Campbell) "And it’s important for police to be well trained in how to use appropriate force and it’s important if there are allegations of excessive force that they be investigated. But you can’t say that every time force is used in an arrest that police have committed an infraction or crime or violated a defendant’s rights. It may be that level of force was what was necessary to take that person into custody."
(Albright) But Darrek Daoust says he shouldn’t have been handcuffed in his driveway and hauled to the station just because his van landed in that ditch. He and his lawyer say they are exploring legal avenues against the town-not just for themselves but, Daoust says, on the behalf of others who have tangled with police. Meanwhile, he is preparing to appear in court on August 9 to defend himself against the negligent driving charge, which carries a one-year jail sentence and or a thousand dollar fine.
For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.