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Court overturns ruling, allows evidence in County drug case

By Jen Lynds

HOULTON, Maine - The state's highest court has overturned a lower court ruling that prevented prosecutors from using as evidence drugs that were seized by police from a passenger during a traffic stop.

The ruling hinged on whether the justices believed officers needed a warrant to search the passenger or had compelling need to conduct the search without one.

The case against Eric M. Martin of Walled Lake, Michigan, originated in July 2013, when Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Peter Johnson began investigating the importation of heroin and illegal prescription pills into Maine from Detroit, according to court documents. A confidential informant to the MDEA tipped the agency to a delivery scheduled to occur in August 2013, saying the suspect, Ricci Wafford of Detroit, sometimes was armed and had sold the informant heroin and pills. Wafford had prior convictions for drug possession and had been charged with carrying a concealed weapon.

After pulling over the suspect's vehicle along Interstate 95 in Smyrna, Detective Ross McQuade of the Aroostook County sheriff's office patted down the driver and a passenger, who turned out to be Martin. At the time, the detective did not know which of the two men was Wafford.

McQuade did not have arrest or search warrants. He testified that in searching Martin for weapons and contraband he did not feel anything that could be a weapon, but when he felt Martin's lower body, he "felt something that appeared to be unnatural and thought that it was likely a plastic bag."

He alerted MDEA Supervising Special Agent Shawn Gillen, who found a bag of 98 30-milligram oxycodone pills in the waistband of Martin's shorts. After Wafford and Martin were arrested, Gillen was notified by a deputy that another bag of 50 pills was found on the ground in the same area where McQuade had searched both men, according to the court brief. The pills were the same kind taken from Martin.

Martin was indicted on one count of unlawful trafficking in scheduled drugs and one count of illegal importation of scheduled drugs. He moved to suppress the bag of pills seized by Gillen, asserting that Gillen had conducted an unreasonable warrantless search. Martin did not challenge the legality of either the stop or the initial pat-down.

Following an evidentiary hearing at which Johnson, McQuade and Gillen testified, Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter ruled the warrantless search of clothes that Martin was wearing violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a section of the Maine Constitution.

He wrote in his decision that Gillen's search of Martin's person "exceeded the bounds of a valid protective search or justifiable search for contraband."

The state appealed, claiming that law enforcement officers had probable cause to search the suspects and that exigent circumstances existed for it. Exigent circumstances exist when there is a compelling need to conduct a search and insufficient time in which to secure a warrant.

Justices with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court were unanimous in their decision handed up on July 23 the evidence was legally obtained and should be allowed at trial.

Writing the opinion for the high court, Justice Andrew M. Mead noted the Superior Court found that "the police investigation in this case provided a clear basis for probable cause to believe that there would be contraband in the vehicle or on the person of Mr. Wafford," and that, "[b]ased on these facts, the officers had a fair probability to suspect that drugs would be found with Mr. Wafford or in his car."

The justices disagreed, however, with Hunter's finding that there was no probable cause to search Martin because Hunter felt there was no detailed evidence of Martin's involvement in drug trafficking beyond his presence in Wafford's car.

"Given the facts that it found, the trial court's probable cause finding concerning Wafford's car extends to Martin, who traveled in the car being driven to Maine for the reported purpose of delivering illegal drugs," Mead wrote.

He added that Gillen, therefore, had probable cause to conduct the challenged search of Martin's clothing.

The Law Court also ruled that exigent circumstances existed to conduct a search since "either Wafford or Martin, although handcuffed, was apparently able to dispose of a bag of pills that was later found on the ground."

"Because Gillen had probable cause to search Martin for illegal drugs under exigent circumstances, neither the Fourth Amendment nor ... our state Constitution barred the search, and the court erred in suppressing its fruits," Mead wrote.

Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said Wednesday that Martin has remained in jail, unable to make bail, since his arrest in August 2013. Collins said the case will go back on the court trial list so Martin can work with attorneys and the state to resolve his charges.

The law firm of Hallett, Zerillo, and Whipple, P.A. are Maine attorneys representing clients who have been seriously injured, accused of crimes in state and federal court, have business litigation needs or family law and divorce cases. Various attorneys in the firm have been locally and nationally recognized for their achievements, including admission into New England Super Lawyers, the Client's Choice Award from AVVO.com, and the President's Award from the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. For more information on the firm, please visit www.HZWlaw.com.

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