WORTHINGTON — The Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court decision regarding charges against Jose Martin Lugo Jr. of Worthington.

The Nobles County Attorney’s Office appealed a decision by Judge Gordon Moore to dismiss two drug-related offenses against Lugo, 25, following a contested omnibus hearing in June of last year. Lugo was charged with controlled substance crime in the second-degree, a felony, driving after revocation, a misdemeanor and possession of drug paraphernalia, a petty misdemeanor following his arrest in February 2015.

According to court records, an agent with the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force (BRDTF) was conducting surveillance at home in Worthington when the officer observed a vehicle leaving the driveway of the home. A search of the license plate returned a felony warrant for the registered owner of the vehicle.

The BRDTF agent subsequently contacted a member of the Worthington Police Department (WPD) to request that the vehicle be stopped due to the warrant. The WPD officer saw the vehicle and made a traffic stop. When the driver pulled into a parking lot to stop, he bent out of the sight of the officer for a brief moment before returning where the officer could see him.

When questioned, the driver of the vehicle, Lugo, said the car belonged to one individual before changing the story and naming a different individual other than the registered owner. A run of Lugo’s information indicated Lugo’s driving status was revoked. The officer tried asking questions when Lugo stated, “Man, just take me to jail, please.”

When talking to Lugo, the officer noted several indicators of illegal drug trafficking. Lugo had a history of arrests for controlled substances, and officers had previously found a meth pipe in the vehicle when the registered owner was stopped. As a result, officers brought in a K-9 officer who indicated the presence of drugs at the driver’s door and the trunk.

Officers found zip-style baggies with a white crystalline substance in a deodorant container in the back seat of the vehicle and a glass pipe with burnt residue in a sock in the trunk. The total weight of the suspected methamphetamine with packaging was 13.4 grams.

At the contested omnibus hearing, the defendant challenged the expansion of the stop by law enforcement, specifically arguing there was not a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal drug activity that would warrant the dog sniff of the vehicle.

The BRDTF agent testified at that hearing that he was observing a known house for drug sales. In 2014 the agency had executed a search warrant on the property, seized controlled substances and arrested Lugo during that search. The officer also testified that he observed the following indicators of drug trafficking:

  • Defendant was not the owner of the vehicle
  • The center console was removed
  • The vehicle had a lived-in look
  • It took Lugo an unusual long time to stop
  • He was leaving a known drug house
  • Lugo had been recently arrested for fleeing on foot from an officer and possession of a controlled substance
  • In 2013, the registered owner of the vehicle was arrested for fifth-degree controlled substance crime

In his order, Moore wrote that no testimony or argument was made “about why a vehicle’s messy interior is particularly indicative of drug trafficking.” He also noted that the BRDTF agent “did not visibly see any other signs of drug trafficking or drug use when he looked into the vehicle such as odor of drug use, the presence of drug paraphernalia, or drugs themselves. There was no evidence presented to the Court regarding Defendant appearing to be under the influence of have recently used controlled substances.

“Because law enforcement did not have a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal drug activity, the expansion of the stop was improper. Any evidence obtained in regard to the improper search must be suppressed and the charges dismissed, except for the Defendant’s driving after revocation charge,” Moore wrote.

“In this appeal from a pretrial order, appellant State of Minnesota argues that the district court erred as a matter of law by suppressing all evidence discovered as a result of a canine sniff and subsequent search of respondent Jose Martin Lugo, Jr.’s vehicle,” Chief Judge Edward J. Cleary wrote in the unpublished opinion of the Court of Appeals.

“The state argues that the district court erred by dismissing two charges against respondent that were based on that evidence. Because police officers articulated facts that, under the totality of the circumstances, gave rise to reasonable suspicion that respondent was engaged in drug-related criminal activity, officers lawfully conducted the canine sniff. Evidence arising from the sniff should not have been suppressed. We reverse and remand,” Cleary added.

Cleary wrote in the decision that when the state appeals a pretrial suppression order, it “must clearly and unequivocally show both that the (district) court’s order will have a critical impact on the state’s ability to prosecute the defendant successfully and that the order constituted error.”

In this case, the state argued that Moore’s order resulted in dismissal of two of the three counts in the complaint including a felony. Without the evidence, the state lacks probable cause to support the two drug charges. Cleary wrote “the state has therefore met the critical impact standard.”

Cleary noted though the United States and Minnesota Constitutions prohibit unreasonable search and seizure, police may expand the scope of a stop to investigate “other suspected illegal activity … only if the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion of such other illegal activity.”

The appeals court did agree with Moore’s assessment on one point.

“We agree with the district court that the state offered several facts that were not indicative of criminal drug-related activity,” Cleary wrote. “And the district court was correct in observing that respondent was apparently not under the influence of drugs, nor were there visible drugs or drug paraphernalia in the car or on respondent’s person. But, police officers were able to ‘point to something objectively supporting (their) suspicion.’”

Cleary outlined the basis of the appellate court’s decision.

“Police officers initiated the stop because they had reason to believe that the driver had an active felony warrant for possession of controlled substances and possession of a firearm,” Cleary wrote. “Officers had suspicion of drug-related activity from the beginning. Once officers stopped respondent, they made observations that gave them reason to believe that respondent was engaged in illegal drug-related activity. The condition of the vehicle’s center console, the unusually long time it took respondent to stop, the fact that respondent had just departed a house under surveillance for illegal drug-related activity, respondent’s alleged drug possession close to the time of the stop, and respondent’s unusual statements, when taken together, form a sufficiently particularized and objective basis for the officers’ reasonable, articulable suspicion. The district court therefore erred in suppressing the evidence discovered as a result of the canine sniff and dismissing the two counts that were based on that evidence.”