The Arizona Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's key ruling in a methamphetamine-possession case against a local woman, concluding that the Mesa police "coerced" her into admitting she was carrying the drug.
In a unanimous ruling issued last Wednesday, the panel agreed with Maricopa County Superior Court Judge George Foster's earlier decision to suppress the woman's admission to the cops and also the evidence itself -- a baggie containing the meth.
In July 2009, the Mesa cops pulled over a driver whose car had a cracked windshield.
Stop the presses! Meth equals trouble.
Chelsea Simon, then 23, was sitting in the front passenger seat. She told Officer Travis Gribble that she owned the car and intended to fix the windshield when she had the funds.
Another officer ran warrant checks on the three people inside the car (the backseat passenger had a warrant out for his arrest), as Gribble asked Simon if he could speak to her privately.
Gribble later admitted that he had no reason to be suspicious of Simon but decided to ask her if there was anything illegal inside her car. Simon asked the officer what he meant by "illegal," and he apparently gave her examples such as illegal drugs or weapons.
The officer then told Simon that "honesty goes a log way with me," noting that he could have a drug-sniffing dog come out and do its thing. (According to the appellate court, it's uncertain if the cop actually told Simon that the K-9 unit already was on its way.)
Simon later testified at a suppression hearing that she felt compelled to answer Officer Gribble's questions and believed his statement about "honesty" suggested he would be lenient if she came clean.
After 15 or 20 minutes of back-and-forth, the young woman finally told the cop that she had some meth in her purse, on the front seat of the car.
He seized the drug and placed Simon under arrest.
Months later, Simon's defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence on grounds that the cop didn't have "reasonable suspicion" to conduct his warrantless search of the car.
After an April 2010 hearing, county judge George Foster ruled that the stop of Simon's car and Officer Gribble's questioning about the illegal items had been okay.
But the judge concluded that the woman's statement to the cop had been involuntary -- and wouldn't be allowed to be presented as evidence at trial.
The judge then invoked one of our favorite legal concepts -- the "fruit of the poisonous tree" -- which holds that evidence (the "fruit") obtained illegally (the "poisonous tree") by police during a search, arrest, or interrogation is inadmissible in court.
In this instance, the "fruit" was that bag of crystal meth.
Judge Foster wrote that "the statement by the officer that he could summon a K-9 to sniff the vehicle in conjunction with the statement that honesty goes a long way was coercive...The statement implied that if the defendant confessed to possession of drugs that the officer would be lenient."
Writing for the three-person panel, appellate Judge Donn Kessler said it was "irrelevant what Gribble's actual intentions were in making the comment that honesty goes a long way with him. He implied a benefit to Simon in exhange for information, and Simon relied on that promise, so the statement was involuntary.
Two morals to this story:
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One, stay away from methamphetamine.
And, two, if you happen to be carrying some when the cops stop you, don't lead them to it after they twist your arm (proverbially, natch) a little.