When looked at through the eyes of North Chester resident Joe Blanchard, an ongoing clash with the Springfield Police Department has a lot to do with personal liberty, shifting community standards and Vermont’s increasing inclination to pass restrictive gun laws.
Last spring, Blanchard became one of the first Vermonters to have his guns taken away under Act 97, Vermont’s new extreme risk protection order law. Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed the measure after police thwarted a teen’s plot to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School.
Blanchard’s running afoul of the state’s new gun regulations is a complex case with multiple layers. The 44-year-old landlord already had a reputation in the community for holding passionate views about guns and the police. Whatever his views may be, police are trained to be “fair and impartial” when executing their duties.
Last April, Springfield Police pulled Blanchard over for having a burned out headlight. During the stop, they discovered his registration and auto insurance had expired as well, and they attempted to tow his car away — a move Blanchard says he strongly, but nonviolently, protested.
Police say when they moved to take away the vehicle, Blanchard verbally threatened to defend himself and his property, even potentially by using a gun.
Blanchard denies the police’s telling of events, however. He claims they exaggerated the incident, abused their authority and violated his rights under the Constitution.
Extreme risk protection orders
According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, “Research has shown that extreme risk laws save lives. They provide law enforcement a tool where they can work with courts to temporarily remove guns from an individual at risk of harming themselves or others.”
But as Blanchard told TNR last week in an interview, Vermont’s extreme-risk law could be easily abused by police, especially if they want to restrain or control a citizen for social or political reasons.
Blanchard is clear about his reasons for speaking out now against local police: He wants to use his First Amendment and Second Amendment rights to expose the injustice of anti-gun laws.
A history of conflict
Blanchard admits his tussles with local police didn’t begin with the April traffic stop.
“I had protested at the Springfield Police Department when I was banned for making comments on their Facebook site, and so I created my own Facebook page [to continue making comments]. It ripped them so bad,” he said.
Blanchard also posted comments about police on Springfield Vermont News, a community news and commentary website.
He told TNR that in addition to expressing his pro-gun-rights views, he had been protesting the state’s automotive inspection law with regards to “check engine” warning lights leading to failed vehicle inspections.
“I’m disabled and on a fixed income — this is why I protest the inspection thing. I’ve never owned a vehicle without the check-engine light being on,” he said, echoing familiar complaints by many low-income rural Vermont drivers. “I’ve been protesting this for a long time.
“The Springfield Police wanted to take my vehicle, and I told them I’d challenge them in court. I then told them if they tried taking my car I’d defend myself to protect my property. They didn’t like that,” he said.
Blanchard claims police targeted him for multiple reasons, including a previous a lewd and lascivious charge involving an adult woman. While he admitted in court to grabbing his accuser’s buttocks, more serious charges made against him were thrown out.
Such prior brushes with the law, Blanchard says, created the pretext for what occurred when he was pulled over by Springfield Police Officer Steven Neily.
During the traffic stop, which occurred in the parking lot of the Springfield Redemption Center, other officers arrived on the scene. Police alleged at the time that Blanchard claimed to have a legal right to drive his Jeep without an up-to-date registration. They also allege that he made verbal threats.
According to Springfield Police Sgt. Jon Molgano, Blanchard said, “You try and touch my car and I am going to defend myself. … You need a warrant to take my car. You ain’t taking my (expletive) car. I have an AR-15 right (expletive) here! Do we need that?”
Blanchard was handcuffed and arrested.
He disputes the police’s description of what happened with regard to his gun.
“They just couldn’t take my car, it’s private property,” Blanchard told TNR. “The police said I pointed the gun at them. I did not point the gun.”
Following the stop, Blanchard’s Jeep was seized and police later obtained a search warrant. According to a local news report, the Springfield Police found “a 30-round magazine with one round chambered and they noted that the safety on the weapon was off.” Police reported that they also found an additional 283 rounds of ammunition behind the driver’s seat.
At the court hearing, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill claimed that ammunition was chambered in the AR-15 at the time of the traffic stop. Blanchard denies that the rifle was loaded.
Blanchard also was forced to visit a psychiatric doctor regarding his mental state.
“I complained to people at the Vermont Bar and they ignored everything I said [about this incident]; they said I was ‘crazy’ and I was going to be locked up,” he said. “I said I had Fifth Amendment rights. I refused to talk to the doctor and said I’m going home now.”
Blanchard claims he then was restrained at the Brattleboro Retreat — a psychiatric and addiction-treatment hospital in southern Vermont — for 10 days. He refused to talk to an attorney at the time.
Springfield Police also searched Blanchard’s residence — a two-unit apartment building he owns in Chester — and seized another tenant’s shotgun “because the barrel was too short,” Blanchard said.
Before authorities were able to remove Blanchard’s weapons in accordance with Act 97, they had to follow multiple steps.
First, the Windsor County state’s attorney had to file a petition requesting that the district court issue an extreme risk protection order prohibiting Blanchard from “purchasing, possessing, or receiving a dangerous weapon or having a dangerous weapon within the person’s custody or control.”
Next, the state’s attorney had to show proof “by clear and convincing evidence” that Blanchard posed “an extreme risk of causing harm to himself or herself or another person by purchasing, possessing, or receiving a dangerous weapon or by having a dangerous weapon within … custody or control.”
Did the law apply to Blanchard?
In Blanchard’s view, he was only protecting his right to his private property — the right to drive his motor vehicle without undue interference by the state. And since he also was carrying a legally registered rifle, he believed it was protected under the Second Amendment.
TNR asked two officials involved with Blanchard’s upcoming court appearances to comment on the case, but both refused due to state legal restrictions.
“The Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules 3.6 and 3.8) prohibit me, as a prosecutor, from making extrajudicial statements about the specifics of Mr. Blanchard’s case, especially to the media,” Windsor County Deputy State’s Attorney Glenn J. Barnes told TNR.
“As I would very much like to keep my license to practice law, I cannot discuss Mr. Blanchard’s case with members of the media (or anyone else) other than to confirm very basic things like, ‘yes I am the prosecutor’ and ‘yes, it is set for future hearing.’ I hope you can understand that my inability to talk to you about this matter is … a result of the professional rules I am required to follow.”
Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnson told TNR, “Mr. Blanchard was charged and I believe there’s a protective order against him right now. … But because there’s a pending trial I can’t comment.”
Blanchard maintains his innocence and says he is holding out hope that he ultimately will be vindicated in court.
“I’m confident that the court will remember the law — I am innocent until proven guilty,” he said.
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.