Two Missouri men who were recently charged for possessing 164 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute appeared in court Tuesday to begin litigating their claim that officers unlawfully searched the vehicle.
Donald Jackson, 52, and Cecil Jones, 39, both of Missouri, were charged on March 15 with possession of more than 10 pounds of marijuana, possession with intent to distribute one or pounds marijuana, both class 3 felonies that each carry a maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine. However, Jackson, who was the driver of the vehicle that officers pulled over for “traveling too closely” behind a semi-truck on Interstate 90 near Mitchell, filed a motion to suppress evidence that resulted in the search and seizure of 164 pounds of marijuana due to what his attorney argues was a “warrantless” and “unreasonable” search.
During Tuesday’s hearing at the Davison County Public Safety Center, South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jordan Anderson, the officer who arrested Jackson and Jones, testified in front of a judge. After issuing Jackson a traffic warning ticket for following a semi-truck too closely, Anderson went to return Jones’ identification card, which is when he said he asked Jones, the passenger, if there was any illegal drugs in the vehicle due to observing “five black bags” wrapped in bedsheets in the back of the Buick Enclave.
“When I returned Cecil’s (Jones) license, he admits to marijuana in the vehicle. Since he admitted to marijuana in the vehicle, I told him I’d be searching the car. He then quickly denies any marijuana in the vehicle, but with his admission I had enough to conduct a probable cause search,” Anderson said, noting Jones’ admission of marijuana in the vehicle led him to deploy a K-9 drug dog to search the vehicle, which resulted in finding 164 pounds of marijuana.
Jackson’s attorney Sonny Walter is arguing that the search of the vehicle was “warrantless” and “unreasonable,” due to the officer’s search and seizure taking place after he issued a traffic warning ticket to Jackson for following a semi-truck too closely. Walter alleges the interrogation and investigatory efforts that took place after Anderson issued Jackson the ticket “prolonged beyond” the mission of the traffic stop that went over 30 minutes, considering it was already completed.
In Walter’s letter for Judge Chris Giles to consider Jackson’s motion to suppress evidence resulting from the vehicle search, he wrote “Trooper Anderson did not have reasonable suspicion to continue the traffic stop and investigatory detention after issuing the citation. The continued interrogation and admission by the passenger was tainted by the unlawful extension of the stop after it had been completed.”
After Anderson issued Jackson his warning, Jackson requested to return Jones’ identification card. But Anderson denied Jackson’s request, asking him to stay in the patrol vehicle while he returned Jones’ identification card himself, which is when Anderson questioned Jones about any illegal drugs in the vehicle. Walter pointed to that action as a way for Anderson to “continue the investigation” on matters not relating to the traffic stop.
“You used that as another opportunity to continue the investigation for a stop that was already completed,” Walter said.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Walter argued the large bags that were observed by officers could have been “large suitcases” or “bags of clothes,” considering they were wrapped and covered in sheets, which he said doesn’t constitute reasonable suspicion to interrogate Jones and ask if marijuana was in the vehicle.
“Under those coverings they could have been things they were moving. It could have been clothes or large suitcases, but you couldn’t see because there were sheets on top,” Walter said.
Anderson pointed to Jackson not making eye contact with him while driving by his patrol car, dropping their speed and for “appearing nervous” as reasons he began traveling behind their vehicle. As he followed the vehicle for a brief period of time, Anderson said he noticed the vehicle was a little over a car length behind the semi when it began to pass, which ultimately led to the traffic stop.
“When they went by me, the driver appeared to be staring straight ahead and wouldn’t make eye contact like I didn’t exist,” Anderson said. “When I got alongside them, the driver appeared to be extremely nervous and staring straight ahead and wouldn’t look at me.
Jones’ attorney Doug Dailey questioned Anderson’s reasoning to pull the vehicle over, asking the trooper if “he stops every vehicle driver who doesn't make eye contact with him,” to which Anderson replied “no.” In addition, Dailey asked Anderson if it’s common practice to follow a car if the driver doesn’t make eye contact with officers, to which Anderson replied “I’m looking at the totality of the circumstances.”
“So you assumed they were appearing nervous because they didn’t look at you. You indicated they dropped their speed to 65 mph, would that be fair to say that was because they were approaching a semi that was also driving slower than the speed limit,” Dailey said.
While Judge Giles didn’t make a decision to grant or deny the motion to suppress evidence on Tuesday, he said he's hoping to make a determination on the motion sometime within the next few weeks.
“If I would grant the suppression motion, there isn't much of a case for the state to proceed with,” Giles said, noting he's yet see this type of case involving two occupants. “If I deny it, the evidence is still here and could be used against you in the trial.”