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Pinellas judge finds St. Petersburg officer's testimony 'incredible' — and not in a good way

Circuit Judge Michael Andrews decided Officer Brandon Bill, a member of the St. Petersburg Police Department's street crimes unit, was not believable when he claimed the smell of marijuana prompted him to searched Emanuel Bell's vehicle. [Times (2012)]
Published May 30, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Last fall, members of the Police Department's street crimes unit converged on a green sport utility vehicle spotted making a rolling right-hand turn at a red light.

The driver, Emanuel Bell, had just left a suspected drug dealer's house. Bell pulled into a McDonald's at Fourth Street and 38th Avenue N and held out his driver's license for the officer, who approached his window.

The officer made Bell get out, then searched a center console after seeing Bell moving his hands near there.

Finding nothing, he went to his cruiser to write Bell tickets for the missed stop and not wearing a seat belt. Other officers arrived and asked Bell to allow further search of his Ford Escape. He said no.

Several minutes later, Officer Brandon Bill approached the SUV and said he smelled faint marijuana and vanilla air freshener. He searched the Escape and found cocaine behind the passenger seat. He also found prescription pills in Bell's pocket.

Bell, 26, was taken to jail on drug trafficking charges.

But the case collapsed earlier this month after an unusual finding by a Pinellas judge, who didn't believe Bill. None of the other officers reported smelling marijuana and none was found.

"It stretches the limits of credulity for this court to believe that the search of the defendant's vehicle was based upon the odor of marijuana," Circuit Judge Michael Andrews wrote. "Here, Officer Bill's testimony is 'discredited, controverted and contradictory within itself,' and as such is incredible."

Prosecutors dropped the case.

Andrews' order, rare for its tone and content, created a buzz among local defense attorneys.

"I have never, in 5½ years of practice, seen a judge do this," said St. Petersburg lawyer Jordan Tawil, who represented Bell. "They just didn't have what they needed to get into that car. … When it comes to narcotics, some officers are willing to take that extra step. If that's a cowboy mentality, then I think that's what you have there."

Tawil and other defense attorneys said the ruling should prompt prosecutors to examine other cases involving Bill.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery disagreed, saying he doesn't see the judge's order affecting other cases.

"This is a fact-specific scenario in which there's a conflict in the evidence and the judge made a ruling," he said Thursday. "I don't think that that applies to the officer's credibility in general"

• • •

Tawil said he saw holes in the case from the beginning.

He said on that evening, Sept. 24, the traffic stop should have lasted only as long as it took for an officer to write the tickets.

Instead, in a defense motion, he said officers detained Bell for more than 25 minutes. One officer threatened to use "sniff dogs" to get the probable cause needed for a search and referred to Bell, who is black, as "boy."

Another officer asked Bell, who has past convictions for obstruction and drug possession, if he was a confidential informant. And when Bell wanted to call a lawyer, police refused to return his cellphone. Those details, included in a defense motion, are not in police reports, which indicate the stop lasted for only a few minutes.

• • •

Tampa lawyer Jim Jenkins said it will take time to determine if the case and the judge's May 7 order have any ripple effects. But he predicted many attorneys may try.

"When something like this happens, word travels pretty fast," said Clearwater lawyer Jason Mayberry, who checked to see if he had any pending cases involving Bill. He didn't.

The order also could be used by attorneys with similar drug cases, Mayberry said, because the odor of marijuana is a common basis for searches.

"It's kind of a go-to for a lot of this kind of stuff," he said. "I don't think all officers stretch the truth, but I think that some do."

• • •

St. Petersburg police have not launched an investigation into Bill's actions that day or his discredited testimony.

"We learned of the judge's ruling yesterday and are in the process of getting a copy of his order and speaking to the State Attorney's Office about the case," police spokesman Mike Puetz said. "Since we are conducting a preliminary inquiry we do not feel we or Officer Bill can respond to questions about the ruling at this time."

Bill was hired in 2008 and joined the 12-member street crimes unit two years later.

His personnel file includes a letter from a resident praising how he worked to clean up a suspected drug house. His latest evaluation, from December, praised his "thorough, detailed and accurate" investigative skills, specifically mentioning other drug cases.

The only discipline in his file is from last year, when he was reprimanded for shooting at a pair of teenagers in a stolen car.

Tawil said his client is a "family man," although he did not know what he does for a living. He said Bell fears he might be targeted if he asks for an internal affairs investigation. "He's just a guy who got caught with some things he wasn't supposed to have and he's happy not to be in Florida state prison," Tawil said.

Defense attorneys call the case a victory for civil liberties.

"This can be something everybody can learn from," Jenkins said. "It's why we have the system of checks and balances."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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