The Potluck

Going to the bathroom at a highway rest stop does not make you a drug trafficker, appeals court rules

By: - September 5, 2023 3:26 pm

A Minnesota State Patrol trooper wears a body-worn camera during a press conference in Golden Valley on Dec. 2, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Have you ever driven a borrowed vehicle? Taken a road trip out of the Twin Cities? Gone to the bathroom at a highway rest stop?

Then you may be a drug trafficker, according to the Minnesota State Patrol.

That’s how a State Patrol officer justified a drug-sniffing dog search of a car driven by Jeron Garding when he was parked at a truck stop off Interstate 94 in Wright County one August evening in 2021. 

The search confirmed the officer’s suspicions, yielding close to a pound of methamphetamine and, eventually, a nearly 9-year prison sentence for Garding. 

But this week the evidence obtained in that search was tossed out by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which ruled that behaviors like driving out of the cities or walking into a rest stop do not, individually or together, add up to reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking.

“To the extent that some of these circumstances are ‘consistent with the activities of any multitude of innocent persons’ or merely consistent with a general aura of potential or general criminality, they are insufficient to establish a reasonable, articulable suspicion of present, drug-related criminal activity,” wrote Judge Jennifer Frisch, who was appointed by DFL Gov. Tim Walz. 

The arresting officer noted a number of other allegedly suspicious circumstances. When the trooper first drove by, Garding began cleaning out the car and placed a bag full of garbage in the trunk. Both Garding and his passenger, a younger woman, had outstanding arrest warrants on other, unrelated charges. 

The passenger had scabs on her face consistent with past methamphetamine use, and gave differing explanations for where they had come from. There was a bag with some sort of rocky substance in the back seat, and loose paneling around the car radio.

But, Frisch ruled, there are many plausible explanations for all of these circumstances. “The Twin Cities is the most populated area of Minnesota,” she noted, “where many people travel without engaging in criminal behavior of any kind.” Similarly, the overwhelming majority of people who drive friends’ vehicles, clean those vehicles and stop at rest stops aren’t doing so in the furtherance of any crime.

As any parent of toddlers knows, a bag full of rocks could just be a bag full of rocks. Interior car panels come loose. People who used drugs in the past aren’t necessarily doing so right now — and they may be understandably nervous about disclosing that behavior to a cop. 

The most incriminating piece of evidence against Garding was the outstanding arrest warrant. But again, people who have committed crimes in the past aren’t necessarily doing more crime in the present.

Alone or in sum, none of those circumstances meets the legal threshold for conducting a drug sniffing dog search, Frisch wrote. 

The case underscores why that threshold is so high: Without strict guardrails, many officers would be tempted to detain and search motorists based on nothing more than their hunches. 

(A grateful tip of the hat to friend of the Reformer Tony Webster for flagging this one)

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.