JAMESTOWN, N.D. - A North Dakota judge ruled that 476 pounds of marijuana seized during a traffic stop can't be used as evidence at trial because the sheriff's deputy who pulled over the vehicle didn't have a good reason to be suspicious.
Two men, Nhia Lee, of St. Paul, Minn., and Bee Thor, of Oshkosh, Wis., were charged with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia in January after the load of marijuana was found in their vehicle during a traffic stop on Interstate 94 near Jamestown.
Now, none of it can be submitted as evidence at trial because Judge Jay Schmidt of Stutsman County District Court issued an order Friday, June 22, saying that the deputy's reason for pulling over the two men was not sufficient.
According to the judge's order, prosecutors argued that since the defendants were driving 2 miles under the 75 mph speed limit and the driver, Lee, was sitting "too rigidly,"Stutsman County Deputy Matt Thom had a "reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe" a criminal or traffic offense was underway or had been committed.
Schmidt wrote that the prosecution's argument was "absurd" and Thom's testimony was "too inconsistent and contrived to be credible."
According to the court document, Thom testified he would've stopped a vehicle going 76 mph, but was uncertain if he would've "deemed 74 mph to be suspicious." Thom also said Lee's grip on the steering wheel was "suspiciously" tight.
Schmidt said neither the vehicle's Minnesota license plate nor the fact it was registered to Lee was a "reasonable or articulable basis" to believe illegal activity was taking place.
Thom testified he found the defendants suspicious because Lee would not look at him when he drove next to the vehicle to see into it - another fact Schmidt found unreasonable.
The document said Thom tailed Lee and Thor for 12 miles before pulling them over after another vehicle passed both the men's vehicles. Thom issued a warning ticket to Lee for failing to give way when overtaken.
Schmidt said Lee did not violate the cited statute and Thom had no "reasonable basis" to believe Lee had violated it based on video from the patrol car.
Schmidt said the seizure of marijuana, paraphernalia and other items was an "unconstitutional seizure of the pickup and the defendants" and is therefore inadmissible at the trial.
Schmidt concluded the document by saying he is aware of the widespread effect and abuse of drugs in society and the need for laws to control the use and trafficking of drugs. Still, he wrote, the rights against unlawful search and seizure provided by the Fourth Amendment are not "second-class technicalities" but fundamental rights that "define what kind of people we aspire and claim to be."
"Widespread marijuana use presents real risks to our society. But the dangers of turning a blind eye to official abuses of our fundamental freedoms in the name of a 'war on drugs' are far greater," Schmidt wrote.