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Judge tosses search by Largo officer based on 'odor of marijuana'

LARGO — A judge has ruled that a Largo police officer was "not credible" when he said he searched a man because he detected "the heavy odor of marijuana."

It's the second time in a month that a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge did not believe a police officer who conducted a search based on his claims of smelling marijuana.

Officer Michael Vegenski and members of the "Problem Oriented Policing" unit were monitoring a room at the Suburban Lodge at 6500 Ulmerton Road in October, records show. Many people were coming in and out of the hotel room. Two men emerged from the room, and both smelled of marijuana, according to Vegenski.

Vegenski searched their pockets "without requesting consent," according to a summary written by Judge Timothy Peters. The officer didn't find any marijuana. One of the men had a key to the hotel room, which Vegenski also searched, He didn't find marijuana there either, but he did find a different illegal drug, according to court records.

"This court finds from the evidence presented that Officer Vegenski did not smell the odor of marijuana emanating from the person of the defendant," Peters wrote in response to a motion filed by defense attorney Roger Futerman. Noting that the officer did not request permission to search the man's pockets, Peters added: "There was no lawful basis for that initial search."

Peters did not throw out evidence from the officer's search of the hotel room, although he did raise some questions about it.

Inside the room, Vegenski asked the defendant, Matthew Lynn Jones, 27, if there were any narcotics or contraband in the room. Jones said he was holding "sand," referring to drugs. Jones said there were drugs inside some clothing, which he was holding for someone named "Simba," records show. Vegenski found two packages of white powder.

The officer said an initial test showed the powder was cocaine, but it turned out to be MDMA, also known as ecstasy. Judge Peters wrote that the testimony in a court hearing "reveals no explanation of how such a false positive for cocaine could have happened."

Jones pleaded guilty to the drug possession charge Wednesday and was sentenced to 18 months' probation. A formal finding of guilt was withheld, a step that Futerman pushed for after noting Peters' finding about the officer's credibility.

Vegenski was not available to speak to a reporter, said Largo Lt. Paul Amodeo. But Amodeo stressed that Vegenski "has an established record of professional service to the city." He said the department would talk to the state attorney's office for clarification about the matter.

In another recent case, Circuit Judge Michael Andrews ruled that a St. Petersburg officer was not credible when he said he smelled marijuana coming from a car, and used that as the basis for searching the vehicle, where he purportedly found cocaine and prescription pills but no evidence of marijuana. Prosecutors dropped that case.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com.

CORRECTION: The name of Largo Police Officer Michael Vegenski was misspelled in earlier versions of this article appearing in print and online.

Judge tosses search by Largo officer based on 'odor of marijuana' 06/05/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2014 4:24pm]
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