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home : top news : top news July 22, 2014

Judge: Huffing OK For Former Teacher
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Jennifer Hersey Cleveland
Staff Writer

NEWPORT CITY -- A former Irasburg teacher did not violate his probation conditions by huffing an aerosol computer cleaner, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen ruled Tuesday in Orleans Superior Court-Criminal Division.

Sean Wallace, 47, of Newport was allegedly found unconscious, lying in a pool of blood, vomit and urine, while living at the Judd House, a transitional house.

Wallace, who was on probation after pleading guilty March 27 to a third offense of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and possessing marijuana, had allegedly inhaled Dust Off, according to the complaint filed by probation officer Charlene Cook.

While Wallace was not found in violation, the judge did add a probation condition that makes it clear Wallace is not permitted to use any drug or product that alters the mind or is psychoactive. Wallace's probation will be transferred to New York shortly, Cook said.

At his arraignment on the alleged violation, June 11, public defender Janssen Willhoit challenged probable cause and was invited by VanBenthuysen to file a motion.

In that motion, Willhoit wrote that the state would be unable to prove that Wallace violated his probation.

Wallace's conditions forbid him from buying, possessing, or using any regulated drugs unless prescribed by a doctor, which Willhoit argued did not forbid his client from huffing household products.

In a recent case, the Vermont Supreme Court held that special measures should be taken to avoid vague or overly broad restrictions in probation conditions, but Wallace was never specifically warned about aerosol sprays, Willhoit argued.

"Regardless of the harm his activity may bring, Mr. Wallace is still not required to assume probation conditions not specified in his probation agreement," Willhoit wrote.

In court Tuesday, Willhoit said that VanBenthuysen himself added a specific condition of release at Wallace's arraignment, making it clear that huffing was off limits.

Deputy State's Attorney Jim Lillicrap wrote in his opposition that huffing is a crime in the state of Vermont, punishable by up to a $25 fine.

Lillicrap wrote that Willhoit's motion "seems to stretch the boundaries of common sense."

The goal of probation is to rehabilitate the probationer and keep him safe, Lillicrap argued. "Huffing is a dangerous, illegal activity that flies in the face of both goals," he wrote.

The can of Dust Off itself speaks to the dangers of huffing, he said. Lillicrap read from the canister: "Misuse by deliberately concentrating and inhaling contents may be harmful or fatal."

Furthermore, Lillicrap wrote, "The State maintains that making an action illegal is controlling that action....The State avers that by establishing huffing as an illegal act, the State of Vermont has regulated the inhalant used by the defendant."

"Further, adopting a rule allowing the unrestricted use of inhalants would mean that many existing probationers would be subject to permanent irreversible neurological damage," Lillicrap wrote.

Quoting a DEA resource guide, Lillicrap said that prolonged sniffing of these chemicals can lead to heart failure and death within minutes.

But VanBenthuysen said "regulated drug" is a term of art, and isn't so broad as to encompass all substances that might alter one's brain. While it isn't smart to intentionally kill off brain cells, the judge ruled it also did not constitute a probation violation in this case.

Wallace's underlying sentence is three to five years, which was all suspended.

Cook wrote in her complaint that Jason Emerson, another Judd House resident, was sitting downstairs when he heard two loud bangs. Emerson went upstairs, where he found an unconscious Wallace lying on the floor in blood, vomit and urine with a can of Dust Off in his hand. He called the ambulance.

Wallace regained consciousness and refused medical treatment, despite injuries from falling off his bed during an apparent seizure.

As Newport City Police officer George Butler was about to leave the scene, he was called back inside after Emerson caught Wallace huffing another bottle of the cleaner. Butler wrote in his affidavit that he was able to knock the bottle away from Wallace before he "toppled over onto the floor unconscious."

After being monitored at North Country Hospital for four hours, Wallace was emergency arrested and taken to the Newport prison.

He has been incarcerated for lack of bail since his arrest.

Wallace has four prior convictions for DUI in 1988, 1990, 1998 and 2002.

He is a former teacher at the Irasburg Village School.

Related Stories:
• Former Teacher Caught Huffing Again Three Hours After Release

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