Feds drop pot charge against South Tahoe man
Ryan Summerlin November 1, 2012
Federal prosecutors have dropped a marijuana distribution charge against a South Lake Tahoe man who landed a small airplane in Nebraska carrying 175 pounds of marijuana earlier this year.
On Oct. 9, a federal judge granted prosecutors’ request to dismiss the distribution charge against 29-year-old Justin Woodcock.
Susan Lehr, the drug unit chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Nebraska, declined to discuss details of the case Thursday. She did not say why prosecutors dropped the charge. Woodcock’s case was settled because of “prosecutorial discretion,” Lehr said.
The film company owner was arrested March 9 after landing his Piper airplane in Alliance, Neb. He was contacted by police and a subsequent search of the aircraft turned up the pot, according to court records.
Prior to the dismissal, Woodcock’s attorney, Zenia Gilg, argued in court documents that the search of the Woodcock’s plane violated his constitutional rights protecting against unreasonable search and seizure. Gilg maintained police unlawfully detained Woodcock and did not have enough evidence to support a suspicion of criminal activity.
She also called into question the qualifications of the K-9 team who initiated the search of the plane. The police dog’s alleged response to the aircraft should not have been treated as support for probable cause, according to a declaration by Andre Falco Jimenez, a longtime K-9 trainer who reviewed evidence in the case.
“It is my opinion and conclusion that the records and information provided in discovery, do not establish sufficient training, a valid certification and a sufficient track record, to find that this was a well-trained and reliable canine team necessary to credit the alleged indication to an odor of a controlled substances in this case,” Jimenez said in the declaration.
The alleged response of the drug dog to the plane provided the “central, if not sole, basis” for the probable cause finding that led to the search, Gilg wrote in court filings.
“The remaining alleged facts, even when considered cumulatively, including, that Mr. Woodcock’s plane was ‘full of luggage,’ ‘the plane made numerous trips to Iowa from the Nevada area,’ and that Mr. Woodcock appeared nervous are too innocuous to contribute to probable cause,” Gilg said in one filing.
During a Thursday phone interview, Woodcock did not deny the allegation by prosecutors. He declined to say whether he had made previous flights to Nebraska, but said he won’t be returning any time soon.
“I have no intentions of doing it anymore,” Woodcock said.
The South Lake Tahoe native said he was required to forfeit his airplane as part of a settlement with prosecutors.
He said he was speaking about the case to let people who’ve been accused of similar crimes know that their lives are “not totally over.”
“You don’t know what you have until you’ve almost lost it,” Woodcock said.
Woodcock faced a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. He does not have a criminal record and his sentence would likely have ranged between 2.5 and 5 years if he was found guilty, Gilg said during a Thursday phone interview.
The attorney said that if anyone deserved to have the case work out as it did, it was Woodcock.
“I do think that Justin is a really good kid and this really turned his life around,” Gilg said.
What role drug dogs should play in criminal prosecutions found a national stage this week as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments surrounding two Florida cases involving the use of K-9 units.
Whether the dogs should be allowed to conduct searches around homes without a search warrant, and what training and certification requirements are necessary to establish a drug dog’s reliability in court are among the issues under consideration.
Justices will rule in the cases sometime next year.
–The Associated Press contributed to this story.