BROOKSVILLE — A former New Port Richey police officer fled a traffic stop in Spring Hill earlier this year, but prosecutors failed to prove he had 28 hydrocodone pills on him at the time.
A six-member Hernando County jury on Wednesday reached the mixed verdict in John Michael Nohejl's trial after deliberating for 35 minutes. The jury found Nohejl, 35, guilty of possession of hydrocodone, fleeing law enforcement and evidence tampering, but cleared him of the most serious charge of trafficking in hydrocodone.
The decision both pleased and puzzled Nohejl's attorneys, Michael Kenny and Kristie Ruppe. The trafficking charge alone carried a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years and a maximum of 30 years.
Sentencing is set for today. Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti could send Nohejl to prison for as long as 15 years, but that's unlikely given his history, Kenny said.
"There's no way any lawyer could consider this anything but an amazing result considering what he was facing," Kenny said. "I can't tell you the relief my client is feeling and the relief we feel as his attorneys."
Given the charges and evidence presented during the day and a half of testimony, however, the jury's decision was perplexing.
A Hernando vice detective testified that he and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent stopped Nohejl for speeding on Deltona Boulevard in Spring Hill. Detective Julio Tagliani said Nohejl refused to provide identification and drove off when he was ordered to get out of his car. The detective and a Hernando patrol deputy in a marked cruiser caught up to him a block away.
During a search of the Kia, investigators found one hydrocodone pill on the driver's-side floorboard. They also noticed the passenger-side window, closed during the first stop, was open. In a front yard on that side of the road, about 100 feet behind the Kia, a deputy found a cellophane wrapper holding 27 pills that matched the one on the floorboard.
Assistant State Attorney Donald "Sonny" McCathran acknowledged during his closing remarks that no one saw Nohejl throw the pills. But McCathran noted the pills appeared to exactly match the one in the car.
Kenny countered that no fingerprints were found on the bag and prosecutors presented no chemical evidence that the pills matched.
After the verdict, Kenny presumed the jury found Nohejl guilty of possession because of the pill in the car. But the guilty verdict on the charge of evidence tampering didn't seem logical since that charge was connected to the allegation that Nohejl tossed the pills.
Nohejl was also charged with possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia after authorities searched the house he was living in, but prosecutors ultimately dropped those charges because they couldn't prove the drugs and paraphernalia belonged to him.
At the time of his arrest, Nohejl was on suspension from the New Port Richey department and had a lengthy disciplinary record, but Tatti on Monday granted a defense motion to keep prosecutors from mentioning what Nohejl did for a living.
He was ultimately fired from the department for failing to report the arrest to his supervisors and for refusing to cooperate during an internal affairs investigation.
Reach Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.