Pubdate: Fri, 30 Dec 2011
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2011 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: James Queally


POMPTON LAKES - When Pompton Lakes police seized Darren Richardson's 
car on a rainy September afternoon, they told him it was headed for 
an impound lot. When they returned it three weeks later, he says, the 
2004 BMW belonged in a junk yard.

The instrument cluster and leather dashboard were gone. The 
caramel-colored seats were torn up. The gear shift was ripped out and 
stray wires hung limp everywhere. Geico, Richardson's insurance 
company estimated the damage at $12,636.42 - more than he paid for 
the car - and declared the vehicle a "total loss."

According to police reports, the damage to the black BMW 325i came in 
the aftermath of a traffic stop during which officers detected a 
"strong odor of raw marijuana" inside the vehicle. Searching for a 
cache of drugs, members of three different police agencies and a 
detective from a federal drug task force spent two days tearing the 
car apart, the reports said.

So what did police find after their $12,000 search?

Absolutely nothing.

The incident has led to an internal affairs investigation by the 
Pompton Lakes Police Department, opened the door for litigation that 
could cost local taxpayers and left experts wondering whether the 
department wasted resources in pursuit of what many see as a minor crime.

"The root of these problems, with the drug laws, is sometimes they 
(police departments) can't distinguish between the Medellin cartel 
and somebody smoking a spliff," said Eugene O'Donnel, a former police 
officer and assistant district attorney who teaches at the John Jay 
College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

Richardson, 28, of the Haskell section of Wanaque, filed a notice of 
claim against the department last week, seeking damages for false 
arrest and malicious prosecution. He also said Geico may sue the 
department to recoup the cost of the claim it has already paid to Richardson.

If that happens, Pompton Lakes could be forced to repay the insurance company.

"Geico would have a potential cause of action against the police 
department for damaging the car, provided (Richardson) would be 
legally entitled to recover the money from the police department," 
said William Stewart, a veteran claims adjuster and president of 
Claims Training Services. "They stand in Richardson's shoes."

The ordeal began Sept. 23 when Lt. Moises Agosto stopped Richardson 
after he nearly caused a traffic accident at Wanaque and Colfax 
avenues, according to police reports. Richardson - who served two 
years in prison for a drug charge and admits he "doesn't trust cops" 
- - began arguing with Agosto, the reports said.

"The way they were acting, their whole demeanor, and the way I was 
antagonizing them, I knew they were going to mess with me," Richardson said.

According to the police reports, Agosto smelled marijuana coming from 
the vehicle. Moments later, Richardson and his passenger got out of 
the car and continued arguing with Agosto, but found themselves in 
handcufffs by the end of the dispute, according to the police reports.

 From inside Agosto's cruiser, Richardson watched a drug-sniffing dog 
scratch at the BMW's trunk, indicating the presence of narcotics, 
according to the report. Police obtained a search warrant and 
Richardson's car was impounded, the reports said.

Four days later, at an impound lot, police conducted another search 
of the vehicle, according to police reports. A second dog was used, 
but this canine scratched at the dashboard, not the trunk, the reports said.

Unable to find the source of the drug scent, police called in a "trap 
expert" to see if marijuana was hidden in a secret compartment inside 
the vehicle. Nothing was found. With the car now partially 
disassembled and unable to be driven, Pompton Lakes police contacted 
New York City Detective Ellen Friedman, an expert in concealed drug 
compartments who is part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task 
force, the reports said.

On Sept. 28, Friedman searched the car and found nothing, but told 
police that at one time it may have been used as a drug transport in 
the past, according to the reports. Richardson denied that allegation.

In the end, the searches yielded no drugs, but resulted in more than 
$12,600 in damage to Richardson's car, according to an itemized 
insurance claim.

Geico did not respond to requests for comment.

A police spokesman said the department offered to pay Richardson 
before he submitted the insurance claim.

"The (department) agreed to pay the damages," Detective Sgt. William 
Jernstedt said. "Richardson said he was going to deal with his 
insurance company, so when the insurance company totaled it, it 
became an internal investigation."

Jernstedt declined further comment, citing the investigation.

Richardson was initially charged with evidence tampering and 
resisting arrest, while his passenger was charged with making 
terroristic threats against police. Both charges were filed after the 
drug allegations were made, according to the police reports, and all 
charges against Richardson and his friend have been downgraded to 
"petty disorderly persons offenses," that will be heard in municipal 
court, officials said.

While police stayed within the bounds of the search warrant, experts 
said, the search appears to have been excessive.

"They went way beyond the scope of this," said Jeffrey Gold, a 
criminal defense attorney who taught search and seizure courses at 
the Burlington County Police Academy. "Once they got into it, they 
started tearing the car apart. They made it worse, in the hopes that 
they would make it better by striking gold."

Civil rights advocates said the case illustrates how many police 
agencies waste resources in pursuit of marijuana offenders.

"This is a great illustration of the costs of this kind of 
enforcement, which yielded nothing for public safety," said Deborah 
Jacobs, executive director of the state ACLU. "All those resources 
went for something that most Americans don't even think should be a crime."

For his part, Richardson said he can't believe it cost $12,000 to 
charge him with a disorderly persons offense.

"It was overkill," he said. "It's crazy."
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