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Vermont Supreme Court Rejects ‘Blanket Rule’ Requiring Fingerprinting in Misdemeanor Cases

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Vermont rejected a trial court’s order that a misdemeanor defendant had to be fingerprinted merely because the State participates in a national crime database. The Court said such a rule created an impermissible “blanket rule” that the law does not require.

Timothy Grant was charged with disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor. He wasn’t fingerprinted prior to his arraignment. He pleaded not guilty, and the court ordered his release with conditions. One of those conditions was that he report to the Brattleboro Police Department, be fingerprinted, and have his mugshot taken.

But Grant’s lawyer objected. He argued that “for people without a record, it’s a really big deal.” The court dismissed this argument and entered its order. It reasoned that because the State participates in the Interstate Identification Index System (“III System”), there was “good cause” under state law to require Grant to be fingerprinted in order to create a national criminal record in the system. But the court did stay the condition pending an appeal.

The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed.

While state law does allow fingerprinting and mugshots of misdemeanor defendants, the State must show “good cause” to require doing so. 20 V.S.A. § 2016(d). The State argued (which mirrored the lower court’s reasoning) that because the State participates in the III System, that’s sufficient to establish good cause to fingerprint Grant for a misdemeanor under the statute. The Court rejected that argument. Mere participation in the III System “does not make ‘good cause’ the rule rather than the exception,” the Court explained.

Under federal law, states that agree to participate in the III System must “maintain detailed databases” of criminal history records and “participate in the national fingerprint file.” This includes fingerprints “or other uniquely personal identifying information” about a person accused of a crime. This information is then shared with federal and other state law enforcement agencies.

But even before the State elected to participate in the III System, lawmakers knew that the FBI required fingerprints for submission of records to its database when they created the “good cause” rule, the Court noted. “That makes fingerprinting the exception, and not the rule, for misdemeanor charges,” the Court concluded.

The State argued that not requiring a rule for fingerprinting all misdemeanor defendants would mean some may never be fingerprinted. That, however, is a “policy question” for lawmakers, the Court said, not one for a court to decide.

The Court also rejected the State’s position that there’s no harm in fingerprinting everyone accused of a crime, even if the charges are dismissed, because the State and FBI are required to destroy the record created if that happens. The Court again explained that it’s up to lawmakers to address the issue, not courts.

Thus, the Court rejected the rule of general applicability that everyone arrested for a misdemeanor is required to be fingerprinted. Rather, the Court announced that a court must make an “individualized finding of good cause to order fingerprinting and photographing.” Accordingly, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed and struck the fingerprinting condition from Grant’s release order. See: State v. Grant, 2019 VT 91 (2019). 

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Related legal case

State v. Grant



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