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Orange Co. Sheriff’s Dept. Settled $15K Profiling Lawsuit

Montpelier — The Orange County Sheriff’s Department last year paid a Danville, Vt., man $15,000 after he accused officers of unfairly targeting him based on his skin color, according to a lawsuit filed in court.

A sheriff’s department captain in 2011 pulled over Jamaican-American Bentley Morgan for failing to use a turn signal, then conducted a nearly month-long investigation in an attempt to prove whether Morgan was actually Fidel Maragh, a man with a similar birthday wanted in Florida on a charge of cocaine possession.

The Vermont Human Rights Commission took on Morgan’s case. A settlement reached in December not only awarded Morgan $15,000 in monetary damages but asked Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak to provide the department’s bias-free policing policy to the Human Rights Commission for review.

The Legislature this session also passed a bill reforming state laws around racial profiling by police, after legislators learned about incidents like this one.

The incident took place June 3, 2011, at a gas station on Vermont Route 15 in Danville, according to court documents. As Morgan, whom court documents describe as a “very dark-skinned black male,” left the gas station, Capt. Michael Welch pulled him over for allegedly failing to use a turn signal. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department was participating in a “click it or ticket” campaign that day in Caledonia County.

As Welch inspected Morgan’s license, his police computer system found an outstanding warrant for a Florida man named Fidel Peter Maragh, who was wanted on a 1996 warrant for violating probation after he was charged with cocaine possession, court documents say.

Maragh had a similar physical build, a similar birthday and was from Jamaica. He also had a scar over his left eye, tattoos on both arms and went by the alias “Peter Paul Morgan,” according to the complaint filed in court on Morgan’s behalf.

Although the warrant said “do not arrest based on this information,” Welch proceeded to investigate, detaining Morgan for more than an hour for questioning.

Welch contacted state police and found out Morgan had been a U.S. citizen since 2000 and had no criminal record. Morgan showed him his Social Security card that did not match Maragh’s number, showed that he did not have tattoos or the same scar, and said he had never been to Florida, according to court documents.

Later that month, members of the sheriff’s department brought two U.S. marshals to Morgan’s home and workplace in Danville, where the marshals confirmed, using photographs and fingerprints, that Morgan was not Maragh. The sheriff’s office had adopted an anti-bias policing policy about a month before the incident, according to the complaint, but no one made sure officers read it.

As the suit was being settled, all deputies read the policy and took part in a three-hour training session about bias-free policing, according to the settlement. A settlement is not an admission of guilt.

Karen Richards, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said on Tuesday the Human Rights Commission has reviewed Bohnyak’s policy and found several deficiencies. Rather than making changes, however, she said she will inform the sheriff’s department of a law passed this year about bias-free policing that requires all law enforcement agencies to adopt one of two statewide policies.