Attorney: troopers illegally target out-of-state drivers
November 27, 2009
A defense attorney in Park City claims four men charged last year with felony possession of marijuana were targeted illegally by the Utah Highway Patrol in interdiction operations on Interstate 80. Many motorists passing through Summit County in November 2008 were stopped by troopers on the busy freeway.
"The object of this exercise was to stop the trafficking of drugs through Utah (mostly marijuana) which originated in northern California and was headed for points east of Utah," states a 15-page brief attorney Gerry D’Elia filed in November on behalf of four clients. "During the exercise Utah Highway Patrol troopers would patrol and monitor traffic traveling on I-80 to strictly and aggressively enforce the traffic laws of the state of Utah."
Drivers were stooped for violating a two-second rule on signaling, failing to properly pass a slower vehicle and following too closely, D’Elia explained.
But the troopers also targeted vehicles with out-of-state license plates, he said in a telephone interview.
"It’s illegal," D’Elia said. "I’ve got some pretty good statistics that, here we are a city trying to lure everybody that we can from out of state for tourism, and the Highway Patrol is taking advantage of it and essentially setting up and stopping everybody that they can with out-of-state plates in order to try to make drug arrests and searches."
An examination of some daily dispatch logs showed that 146 of 147 vehicles stopped in interdiction operations last year had out-of-state license plates, according to D’Elia.
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"They are violating constitutional rights by stopping out-of-state vehicles at a rate of 20 to one compared to in-state vehicles, and that is illegal," D’Elia said. "We can go past them at 80 miles per hour, they don’t stop us. If they’ve got an out-of-state plate, at 70 they stop them."
Once the motorist is pulled over, troopers use "selective law enforcement" in trying to observe circumstances which could indicate the driver is transporting drugs, D’Elia said.
"All they do is they see that you have a Red Bull on your seat and that means you want to stay up," D’Elia said. "From there, you’re out of state in a rental car and as far as they are concerned, they think that’s probable cause for a search."
Between 80 and 90 percent of vehicles the troopers have searched have not contained illegal drugs, he said.
"How many people are out there who have been searched, detained, their rights violated and they just say, ‘God, get me out of this state, I want nothing to do with it?" D’Elia said.
But four defendants D’Elia represents in the case, who were caught with felony amounts of marijuana, were not planning to stay in hotels in Old Town or ski at Deer Valley, Summit County Attorney David Brickey explained.
"These are people who are traveling though the state of Utah with hundreds of pounds of marijuana, leaving from one destination to arrive at another and simply passing through Utah," Brickey said in a telephone interview. "These people are leaving Phoenix and they’re driving to Chicago. And the fact that they have Red Bull in the front seat is an indication that they are simply passing through and they need the energy drink to keep moving."
Brickey said, D’Elia is "trying very hard to gain sympathy for criminals."
"There has not been a single court in the state of Utah that I’m aware of that has bought off on his theory," Brickey said. "If you can identify where it says growing marijuana is a protective right, I’d be interested to see that clause. I don’t think the Supreme Court, either of the state or the United States, is going to say that growing marijuana is a constitutional, civic right that everybody has at the present time."
Court hearings are scheduled in the Snyderville Basin Dec. 15 for D’Elia to argue that evidence against clients was illegally obtained by the Utah Highway Patrol.