Appeal takes aim at altering meth law

In the eyes of narcotics officers, seeing you buy a couple of boxes of cold pills and driving directly to another store to buy a package of lithium batteries is suspicious enough to stop you and ask to search your car. If they find a few other specific items -- such as more cold pills or starter fluid -- you could be arrested on suspicion of being a meth cook.

But a local judge recently decided such coincidences didn't give enough reason for narcotics officers to stop a Michigan man's car Jan. 24 in Cape Girardeau. The judge told prosecutors they couldn't use the pills and batteries found inside as evidence in court.

Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle wants a higher court to decide what amounts to reasonable suspicion in methamphetamine-related traffic stops and has appealed to the the Missouri Eastern District Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The appellate court's ruling will be significant because it could dictate how much suspicious behavior gives police a valid reason to detain somenone suspected of making meth, Swingle said.

The case is being watched closely by the agency that made the arrest, said Kevin Glaser of the SEMO Drug Task Force.

"We are keeping an eye on it and we're concerned with how the courts might ultimately rule, because it could affect how our officers conduct their jobs," Glaser said.

Shopping trip

Jonathon G. Childress, 32, of Paw Paw, Mich., was detained by two SEMO Drug Task Force officers, following a Cape Girardeau shopping trip in which he bought two packages of cold pills and a package of lithium batteries -- items commonly used to make methamphetamine. He bought the pills at Target and the batteries at Best Buy.

The officers observed Childress making the purchases and a Cape Girardeau patrolman responded to assist them. Together, the officers performed a "Terry" traffic stop -- named for a 1968 Ohio case in which an officer detained three men because they repeatedly walked in front of the windows of a jewelry store and stared inside, creating a reasonable suspicion they were about to rob the store.

Childress consented to a search of his vehicle. Under the driver's seat, officers found a four-pack of lithium batteries, three boxes of 96-count pseudoephedrine tablets, one box of 48 pseudoephedrine tablets and receipts for other previous purchase for similar tablets. Childress was then placed under arrest.

His public defender, Jennifer Booth, filed a motion to suppress the evidence, citing the search was done without a warrant or probable cause and that there was no evidence the seized articles were ever going to be used in a crime.

According to court testimony given by the officers, Childress admitted he had used meth within the previous week and that he was taking the items to another man in Oak Ridge who would use them to make more meth.

Presiding Circuit Court Judge William Syler granted Booth's motion. During the hearing, he questioned whether buying two boxes of Sudafed and a package of batteries was enough reason for the officers to stop Childress.

"I worked with both of these officers for years and respect both of them," Syler said. "But I think in all candor -- and as I said, not that I don't understand what's going on here -- but I just don't think this is enough in this particular instance."

Appeal filed

Prosecutor Swingle hopes to reverse the ruling before it creates problems in other investigations. He filed his appeal April 4.

"This is going to be pretty important," he said. "Because if the judgment is upheld, then police all over the state won't be able to consider that reasonable suspicion."

Attorneys from the public defender's office appellate division will argue against the appeal for Childress, Booth said.

Childress is currently free on $10,000 bond. Even after a ruling is handed down, the future of the charge against him, possession of ephedrine with intent to manufacture a controlled substance, is up to the prosecutor, Booth said.

"There may be evidence that's independent of the stop," she said. "But usually, whatever the appellate court decides, it's up to the prosecutor to think, 'Do I have a case or don't I have a case?' and go from there."

Existing state law limits customers to buying no more than three packages of ephedrine or psudoephedrine products in a single purchase. A bill recently passed in the House is attempting to lower that limit to two boxes per sale. The bill, HB 470, is now in a Senate committee.

According to current state statutes, it is unlawful for any person to possess a precursor drug, such as ephedrine, with the intent to manufacture meth. Possession of more than 24 grams of one drug or a combination of meth ingredients is considered evidence of intent. In total, the 336 pills found in Childress' car amounted to 11.52 grams of psudoephedrine. But combined with the batteries, this may still violate the law, which constitutes a class D felony.

Court rulings and new legislation are a regular topic among officers, Glaser said.

"There are very few monthly meetings that go by where we don't address some court ruling that affects how we conduct business out there," Glaser said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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