MONTPELIER — A lawsuit involving a St. Albans man giving a Vermont State Police trooper the middle finger might see its day in court.
In a complaint filed Feb. 3 in Washington County Civil Court, St. Albans resident Gregory Bombard is suing the State of Vermont for what played out nearly three years earlier.
He’s demanding a jury trial and seeking compensatory damages, and a declaration that the actions of the trooper in February 2018 were illegal, among other requests.
Those actions are said to have included a pair of wrongly-administered motor vehicle stops, subsequent arrest, and the towing of Bombard’s vehicle. The traffic stops were due to a perception by the trooper that the driver was directing their middle finger towards him in an obscene manner and audible curse words directed towards the trooper at the conclusion of the first stop, according to the complaint.
Bombard’s complaint alleges that Vermont State Police (VSP) Trooper Jay Riggen violated Bombard’s rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and false arrest, and that Riggens pulled over the plaintiff, arrested him, and had his vehicle towed in retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.
When contacted for a statement Friday, VSP Public Information Officer Adam Silverman said it’s the practice of the Vermont State Police to decline commenting on pending litigation.
Bombard is being represented by counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Vermont, namely James Diaz.
“Vermonters who want to protest the actions of police through words or gestures have a constitutionally protected right to do so,” Diaz stated in a Feb. 4 press release. “This abuse of power by a Vermont state trooper is a clear example of just how overpoliced our communities are. Cases like these are part of why so many are calling on lawmakers to take bold action to limit the broad powers of police.”
Complaint’s description of what happened
According to Bombard’s complaint, he was driving south on North Main Street in St. Albans shortly after noon on Feb. 9, 2018 and passed Riggen, who was traveling south in a VSP cruiser. The complaint states Riggen believed Bombard gave him the middle finger. The complaint says the plaintiff denied and still denies doing so.
Riggen turned around and conducted a traffic stop shortly after. While being questioned, Bombard continued to deny displaying the offensive gesture, and he then told Riggen he would be filing a complaint once the trooper told Bombard he was free to go. The driver is said to also have questioned the legality of the stop during the interaction.
The complaint states that, while being upset about being stopped and questioned by police without a valid purpose, Bombard did show his middle finger in conjunction with cursing, “saying something to the effect of ‘a------’ and ‘f--- you.’” The complaint states Riggen followed Bombard in his cruiser onto Brainerd Street where he again conducted a motor vehicle stop.
Riggen ordered Bombard to exit his vehicle and informed Bombard that he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. According to the complaint, when asked by Bombard how his actions were disorderly conduct, Riggen said, “yelling ‘a------’ in front of dozens of people is disorderly conduct 101.”
When Bombard asked what was going to happen to his car, Riggen pointed out that it was in front of a “No Parking” sign and it was going to be towed. It’s said Bombard requested to instead drive his vehicle to the VSP barracks but was denied from doing so. Bombard was transported to the St. Albans Barracks and jailed for over an hour.
Bombard would be charged with disorderly conduct by the Franklin County State’s Attorney, and Bombard’s motion to dismiss the charge was denied Aug. 31, 2018. The State’s Attorney then filed a second charge of disorderly conduct Nov. 21, 2018 based upon the same event.
The first charge was in response to Riggen’s affidavit that said Bombard needed to stop short when he reentered the roadway after the initial stop, and the second charge claimed Bombard recklessly created a risk of public annoyance by obstructing vehicular traffic.
On Dec. 17, 2018, the court granted Bombard’s motion to dismiss the second charge, stating that someone cannot be convicted of obstructing traffic just by conveying offensive messages or ideas. The ruling also noted that the video from Riggen’s body and dashboard cameras did not show any time when Bombard or his vehicle physically obstructed traffic.
On Jan. 18, 2019, the Franklin County State’s Attorney then dismissed the first count of Disorderly Conduct.
Claims for relief
Bombard’s complaint includes five counts, the first being that his rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and false arrest were violated when Riggen conducted the first motor vehicle stop.
The second count claims Bombard was initially stopped in retaliation for his perceived expression of constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article Thirteen of the Vermont Constitution. Count III also mentions Article Thirteen, saying Riggen arrested Bombard for protesting the actions of a police officer by expressing displeasure and frustration through words and gestures — which constitutes free speech.
The fourth count says Bombard’s vehicle was towed for similar retaliation, and the fifth claims Riggen’s actions have chilled Bombard’s speech to this day, something that has caused him to suffer damages, according to the complaint.