U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins is thinking of ordering federal prosecutors to return more than $18,000 and a vehicle seized in a cocaine arrest that was later declared illegal.
The Juan Fabela-Garcia cocaine case has special importance because its dismissal was based on the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.A peculiar aspect is that after Jenkins dismissed the criminal charge, federal prosecutors appealed the dismissal - but then decided they weren't going to appeal after all.
Fabela-Garcia, 28, Los Angeles was arrested on April 27, supposedly for a traffic violation on I-70 in central Utah, the route called "the cocaine pipeline" because of the numerous drug busts there.
According to Jenkins' dismissal ruling, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jim Reynolds stopped Fabela-Garcia, who was driving 50 to 55 miles an hour in a 65 mph zone. The car was not stolen, but the patrolman wrote a traffic citation.
Then the car was searched and 14 kilograms of cocaine were discovered, plus 6 grams more on his person, and $18,855 in cash.
Jenkins asked the U.S. attorney's office which traffic statute was violated, but prosecutors couldn't cite one. The possibilities, including improper lane change or driving too slowly, apparently didn't fit the situation.
The judge ruled that the search was unconstitutional.
"The court doubts whether either (traffic) statute applies in this situation," Jenkins wrote on June 22.
"It is impermissible to use a traffic stop as a pretext to search for evidence of more serious crime." Because the the traffic stop was illegal, he wrote, "all evidence subsequently seized is inadmissible."
The U.S. attorney's office filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court in Denver. Later, though, the prosecutors decided to drop the appeal.
Still left unresolved was what to do with Fabela-Garcia's car and the cash. Fabela-Garcia's lawyer asked for their return. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard D. McKelvie said the state has jurisdiction, since the car and money are in the keeping of officials of Emery County, where they were seized.