A Vermont judge refused to accept a plea deal in the case of a former police officer accused of betraying his badge, because she believed the proposed punishments were not severe enough.
“This is a case that really strikes at the heart of the administration of justice,” Judge Alison Arms of the Vermont Superior Court said Thursday about the case against ex-Burlington cop Christopher Lopez.
Newly-filed court paperwork shows Lopez claimed he and fellow police officers routinely turned off their body cameras to talk privately about investigations, and “avoid giving defense attorneys ammo.”
Lopez appeared to want his camera off during a traffic stop last fall, but the camera did capture him admitting to a coworker there was no smell of marijuana on a suspect.
“I’m just trying to get creative about how I’m going to get in this car,” Lopez could be heard saying at one point during the October 2016 traffic stop.
Lopez later wrote in formal paperwork that he did, in fact, smell pot.
The disconnect over the odor of marijuana sparked a perjury probe earlier this year, leading to Lopez’s resignation and forcing Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George to toss drug cases Lopez was involved in.
The former officer pled not guilty Thursday to a charge of lying to law enforcement.
Defense attorney Lisa Shelkrot pointed out that her client maintains he believed he did smell marijuana—later in the traffic stop—after making that initial comment about not smelling it.
In documents filed with the court by the Vermont Attorney General’s office, an investigator said Lopez “previously used the smell of marijuana as a ruse during traffic stops to ask for consent.”
In July, necn reported that the driver involved in the traffic stop with Lopez won a six-figure settlement, but was arrested on different drug charges in Rutland.
Lopez was ready to plead “no contest” and settle the misdemeanor charge, but the court said no, wanting stiffer punishments than what the plea deal called for.
Judge Arms wanted to see punishment include a year of probation, letters of apology, a monetary fine, and 80 hours of community service—some of which must have featured speaking presentations by Lopez to current police officers or recruits about where Lopez went wrong on the job.
After negotiations over the terms of the plea agreement between Lopez, Shelkrot, and Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan, Lopez would not agree to pay a cash fine, so Judge Arms declined to accept the plea deal.
Arms said the court wanted to see a punishment that sent more of a message of deterrence.
“Thanks, fellas,” Lopez said after the hearing, declining to answer a question from necn about whether he was disappointed the case did not get resolved Thursday.
“We’re actually not going to make any comment,” added Shelkrot.
Another hearing for the case is scheduled for next month.
“This case will show that kind of behavior is not tolerated, and if a law enforcement officer engages in it, they won’t be a law enforcement officer again,” Meenan told reporters after the hearing.
Judge Arms noted that for the hearing in October, Lopez may well go before a different judge, who could have different views on how the case should proceed.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo chose not to comment for this story, because the case against Lopez had not been adjudicated.