Judge sides with cops in pot case
February 16, 2010
A 3rd District Court judge has ruled against an attorney in Park City who claimed the rights of his clients were violated when troopers targeted their vehicles because they had out-of-state license plates.
As marijuana in California was being harvested in November 2008, the Utah Highway Patrol stopped several motorists on Interstate 80 in Summit County. Some of the drivers hadn’t properly signaled to change lanes. Others failed to properly pass a slower vehicle or were following too closely.
But cars with out-of-state license plates were profiled, which is illegal, said Gerry D’Elia, a defense attorney in Park City. D’Elia represents several suspects who were stopped during the drug sweep and stand accused of possessing felony amounts of marijuana.
An examination of dispatch logs showed that 146 of 147 vehicles stopped in the interdiction operation had out-of-state license plates, D’Elia said.
However, 3rd District Court Judge Bruce Lubeck ruled that D’Elia has not presented evidence proving the traffic stops violated his clients’ constitutional rights by subjecting them to selective enforcement.
Concentrated efforts by law enforcement to seize marijuana often coincide with growers on the West Coast harvesting the plant, said Jeff Nigbur, a spokesman for the Utah Highway Patrol.
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"It’s just common sense," Nigbur said in a telephone interview Monday.
Interstates in Utah are busy drug-trafficking corridors, Nigbur explained.
"Obviously, we’re going to stop some vehicles with out-of-state plates. That’s just the way it is," Nigbur said. "These are major thoroughfares to get to other states."
But nobody was profiled during the 2008 sweep, he insisted.
"All the stops were made on that drug case based on probable cause," Nigbur said. "These officers are highly trained to be able to see certain red flags at any given stop and look beyond the stop. Whether it was via canine or a consent search, they were able to get in the vehicles and take some drugs off the road."
D’Elia did not show that troopers declined to stop vehicles with Utah plates, Lubeck states in his 24-page ruling and order.
"The court is reminded of the broad discretion of law enforcement to enforce the traffic code and the court will not interfere with this state and law enforcement executive-branch function," according to Lubeck.
However, D’Elia said a judge in 3rd District Court is slated to reconsider Lubeck’s ruling against his motion.
"Everything would probably be dismissed if the reconsideration goes well," D’Elia said about the charges against his client. "The statistics still show, unequivocally, that the UHP is profiling Nobody has questioned the statistics and the statistics are still compelling."