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October 17, 2004 - The Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)

Judge: Officers May Lie About Traffic-Stop Reasons

By Jamie Satterfield

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In the cloak-and-dagger world of undercover drug investigation, just how far can officers go to conceal their secretive work?

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton wades into this thorny area of the law with an opinion involving the seizure of a kilogram, or a little more than two pounds, of cocaine found stashed in a diaper bag inside Adrian Brown's car.

The cocaine, authorities allege, was a drop in the bucket for a conspiracy that funneled hundreds of pounds of the illegal powder from Atlanta to Athens to Knoxville. Brown, they contend, was part of a ring of drug traffickers led by Nathaniel Brinson Jr.

A task force of agents headed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration knew the odds were high that Brown had cocaine in his car in August 2003. But they had a problem.

Brown and his alleged co-conspirators had no clue the DEA was on their trail. They were clueless of phone taps and surveillance teams and unaware of the government's efforts to build a conspiracy case.

The DEA-led task force wanted to snatch Brinson's cocaine and, perhaps, turn him into an informant in the process, but they were not ready to take down the entire alleged trafficking organization.

So, they concocted a ruse, testimony has shown. That ruse would ultimately lead into a Knox County courtroom, where a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper would - on the witness stand - continue to cloak the real reason he stopped Brown.

If the trooper, at best, blurred the truth or, at worst, lied, could Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Winck still be allowed to use that kilogram of cocaine against Brown?

In an opinion released last week, Guyton said he could.

According to Guyton, federal appellate judges have given undercover officers quite a bit of leeway when it comes to concealing their work. They can stall a traffic stop to keep up a ruse, and they can even lie about their real reasons for stopping a suspect, Guyton wrote.

What matters, Guyton wrote, is not what the officers say they know but what they really know that counts.

"The legality of a stop must be judged by the objective facts known to the seizing officers rather than by the justifications articulated by them," Guy wrote, citing a 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling.

Using wiretaps and surveillance, the DEA-led team of agents tracked Brown to a West Knox County hotel, where they believed Brinson delivered to Brown the kilogram of cocaine.

DEA Agent Todd Lee asked THP Sgt. Johnny McDonald to follow Brown's car and try to find a legal basis to stop it. Lee had briefed McDonald on the details of their probe, so the trooper knew Brown was a suspected cocaine trafficker with drugs in his car, Guyton wrote.

McDonald used a temporary tag affixed to the back of Brown's car as reason for a stop. He later testified in Knox County General Sessions Court that the tag - and his perceived authority to check its validity - - was the sole reason he stopped Brown.

At that hearing, McDonald never divulged details of the conspiracy probe, a move to continue to cloak for the DEA its ongoing investigation. A sessions court judge ruled McDonald had no right to stop a car to check a temporary tag and tossed out the cocaine as evidence.

When Winck unveiled the government's conspiracy case against Brinson, Brown and a crew of others a few months later, defense attorney Russell Greene asked Guyton to follow the sessions court judge's ruling. McDonald, Greene charged, had lied on the witness stand and should be stuck with the tale he told.

In his opinion, Guyton refused to label McDonald a liar and instead wrote that he found the trooper's testimony "credible." But even if he didn't, Guyton said that would not change the fact that McDonald had probable cause to believe Brown had cocaine in his car, regardless of whether McDonald revealed that to either Brown or the sessions judge.

Brinson and several others in the conspiracy indictment have pleaded guilty. Brown contends he is innocent and is set to stand trial early next year.

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