Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Star trek fan's lawsuit over questionable search for marijuana moves forward

A couple of years ago, filmmaker and Star Trek fan Terrance Huff released a YouTube video that went semi-viral after experiencing an all-too-common drug war practice.   

Huff and his friend John Seaton were driving back to Ohio after visiting a St. Louis Star Trek exhibit when they were stopped, supposedly for an unsafe lane change.  Following the questionable stop, Officer Michael Reichert started asking Huff if there were any drugs in the car and for consent to search.  Eventually, Reichert ran a drug dog around the car.  On the side of Huff's car that was not visible from the police-dash cam, the dog "alerted" (very likely, it seems, after prompting from Reichert.)  Reichert then searched the car, claiming to have found marijuana shake (which, from the video, seems almost certainly to have been a lie).  Reichert then let Huff and his friend go with a warning.   

At the time the video was released, Radley Balko wrote a great piece on the incident and what it says about drug war-era policing.  As Balko explained, the encounter had "all the markings of a forfeiture fishing expedition."  Reichert likely pulled the car over because it had out-of-state plates and though he did not have anything approaching probable cause, he probably hoped a search would reveal drugs so his office could steal--err, I mean take through asset forfeiture--Huff's car.

These sorts of incidents are all-too-common.  I had a close friend experience something very similar while driving through Utah with California plates (he was moving after finishing graduate school with his father as his road trip-partner).  The cop searched through his bags for about an hour, assuring my friend that he didn't care all that much if there was a little marijuana in the car and encouraging him to just admit where it was.  My friend did not have any marijuana or other drugs so, eventually, after the officer had wasted a good hour-plus of law enforcement time, my friend and his dad were allowed to continue on their way.    

Usually, Huff's unpleasant encounter wouldn't have gone beyond that road in Collinsville, Illinois.  But Huff was upset enough and resourceful enough to get Reichert's dash cam video and release his fantastic YouTube video that gained a bit of a following.  (As an aside, I know a few law professors (myself included) who have used the video in class.)  

Huff didn't just stop at releasing his video, however.  He also filed a civil suit.  Reichert's motion for summary judgment was denied and, of course, he appealed.  On Monday, the Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of summary judgment.  The decision is not especially groundbreaking as far as the law.  The court goes through a pretty straightforward analysis explaining (among other points) that the police can't just pull people over because they have out-of-state plates and that there are enough disputed facts to survive summary judgment.  

Though not a big legal development, I thought the news might be of interest to those who've seen the video already (and, especially to anyone who might use it in their course.)  I was certainly glad to learn that the lawsuit is moving forward.  And, for those who haven't seen the video, the decision is a good excuse for me to post it.  It's a little lengthy--17 minutes or so--but worth a watch for those interested in highway drug enforcement shakedowns.   

One last side-note sure to inspire confidence in drug war policing practices: in his deposition, Reichert admitted that he "randomly plant[s] drug scent on cars in public parking lots in order to train his dog, Macho." 

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