The California Court of Appeals has overturned the marijuana convictions of two persons arrested after a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer stopped and searched their vehicle because they looked like hippies. CHP Officer Doug Mertz, notorious as an anti-drug hotdog in Humboldt County, violated the constitutional rights of Jason Fishbain and Chris White when he used a pretext to pull them over after his suspicions were aroused by their stereotypically hippie appearance, the court ruled. The court overturned prison and probation sentences for the pair.
Officer Mertz tailed Fishbain's vehicle for miles on US Highway 101 before stopping them for having no front license plate (the vehicle was licensed in Arizona, where no front plate is required) and for having an air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. Mertz then claimed to smell the odor of burning marijuana and conducted a search without the consent of the vehicle's driver or passengers. He found five pounds of marijuana and nearly $10,000 in cash. After a lengthy legal battle, Fishbain and White were convicted of marijuana offenses. White was sentenced to three years at Pelican Bay State Prison, while Fishbain received probation.
But on February 27, the Court of Appeal vacated the convictions, ruling that Mertz had unlawfully stopped and searched the vehicle. The single license plate and the hanging air freshener were not traffic violations, the court said, and Mertz thus had no legal authority to stop the vehicle, detain its occupants or conduct the search. The search and its fruits were therefore "unreasonable and unlawful," the court held.
In so doing, the court hewed to the legal arguments presented by attorney David Crane, who represented Fishbain and filed the appeal. "Subsequent to the unlawful stop and during the illegal and unlawful, prolonged detention, Officer Mertz began a fishing expedition and conducted an investigation without probable cause, performing an unlawful and unwarranted and unnecessarily intrusive search," Crane wrote in the appeal.
The ruling will help rein in out-of-control troopers, Crane told the McKinleyville Press. "It certainly draws a brighter line for police behavior," he said. "I don't see how (Mertz) could continue making stops like this one. It seems easy to justify them based on their results, but this time, the results are different."
The two men, who maintained from the beginning that the marijuana was for medical purposes, have said through their lawyers that they are now considering civil lawsuits against the California Highway Patrol. But that doesn't mean they are especially impressed with the state's legal system. "I guess if you spend enough money and you're able to stick with it, maybe you'll get justice," Fishbain said. "But if you're an average person in Humboldt County who doesn't have much money, you're pretty much screwed -- unless you have the money to play the game. That's what I've learned."