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Chewing and Grinding: A South Dakota Drug War Story

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #512)

special to Drug War Chronicle by Bob Newland

[Editor's Note: Drug War Chronicle is beginning a new occasional series of reports on the day-to-day workings of the war on drugs. We spend a lot of time reporting on committee hearings, election campaigns, ballot initiatives, speeches, statements, findings, and even reporting on reports. But while we chronicle the progress (or lack thereof) of drug reform efforts, the drug war grinds on. Last year, some 1.8 million people were arrested on drug charges. We aim to start telling some of their stories -- or to let them tell them themselves. They portray many small injustices nestled inside the larger injustice that is drug prohibition, but that's just business as usual. And business as usual is the problem, as these stories will indicate.

Our first drug war account comes from South Dakota. Famed among motorcycle enthusiasts for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the state also feeds off the event's attendees. As the rally draws nearer every August, South Dakota Highway Patrol cars hover beside the interstates like vultures awaiting the arrival of their prey, and the hunting is good. The Patrol's online publication, The Newsroom, shows a whopping 38 felony and 192 misdemeanor drug arrests for Sturgis week, compared to a normally single-digit number of felony drug busts each week and misdemeanor drug busts in the low dozens.

There's an old line among Sturgis attendees about South Dakota's enforcement activities: "Come on vacation, leave on probation." (An alternate version: "Come on a stroll, leave on parole.") But, as this week's story shows, even when they don't get you, they get you.]

Main Street during Sturgis Rally (courtesy Wikimedia)
Day after day, it chews and grinds. Its only purpose is chewing and grinding. The chewing and grinding gives it no satisfaction, only another day of existence. Another day of chewing and grinding. The War on Some Drugs has endless hunger. Eric Sage has felt that hunger turned toward him.

Sage, 31, works at a family-owned manufacturing company in Sidney, Nebraska. Sage was riding his motorcycle home August 7, after spending a couple of days at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, accompanied by Jorge, who was driving Sage's pickup with passengers Kalie and Barb.

Sage was stopped by South Dakota Highway Patrolman Dave Trautman ten miles
east of Rapid City on Interstate 90 for "weaving" in his own lane. Jorge pulled over also, and stopped ahead of Sage's bike, which was ahead of the patrol car. The patrol car's dash-cam records video of what happens in front and audio of what's said in the car.

Trautman ticketed Sage for a minor traffic infraction, then asked him to wait by the guard rail while he talked to Jorge. Trautman brought Jorge to the patrol car, berating him for tailgating, then asked for permission to search the pickup. Jorge told him the pickup belonged to Sage, but gave permission to search when Trautman told him the driver had that right. Trautman left Jorge in the patrol car, then got out and paused to speak to Sage.

Sage says Trautman asked for permission to search, and, having received it, asked, "Where would I find anything illegal in there?" Sage says he replied slightly sarcastically, "I don't know. Glovebox?"

Trautman then proceeded to the pick-up and ordered the two women passengers to sit on the grass at the road's edge. After spending 16 minutes searching the vehicle, he emerged, poured out a beer, and is seen in the dash-cam coming back to the patrol car with one of the women and a handbag.

"There's weed in your purse," Trautman said in the first comment audible on the tape.

"Yeah," replied the woman, Barbara.

"Where's the weed that was in the glove box?" Trautman then asked. Barb was bewildered by the question. She then admitted to having smoked weed that morning, having nearly finished off the bag in her purse, with the pipe also in her purse.

"With these guys?" Trautman asked.

"Yeah," she said.

Trooper Trautman then walked back to the pickup, looked around the passenger side, and returned to the patrol car. "Here's what I'm gonna do," he resumed. "Everybody's admitted smoking weed..."

Eric Sage
The dash-cam tape ends at this point. In a later written report on the incident, Sage said he was told that the camera "stopped."

Trautman wrote one of the women passengers, Kalie, a ticket for the open container. But he then also cited all four travelers with "possession of paraphernalia," which seems unsupported by the evidence, given that only one of them -- Barb -- was found in possession of paraphernalia. But it gets weirder.

Barb paid her paraphernalia fine, about $250. Kalie paid her open container fine. Jorge is considering what to do. Eric returned to Rapid City August 21 and pled not guilty, thinking it ludicrous that someone on a motorcycle could get charged for something somebody in a nearby pickup had in her purse.

[Editor's Note: The unwary protagonists of this tale did things they shouldn't have done and didn't do things they should have done to avoid getting into this mess in the first place. The basic rule is never consent to a search and keep your mouth shut. As Scott Morgan, Associate Director of the civil liberties organization Flex Your Rights pointed out: "This whole incident stems from the driver's initial decision to consent to a police search. Evidence was discovered, at which point the suspects needlessly implicated one another in criminal activity by admitting to marijuana use. Refusing the search and declining to answer incriminating questions could likely have prevented the subsequent legal fiasco that resulted from this traffic stop."]

Asked why he fought the charges, given that he knew to begin with that it would cost him more than just paying the fine for paraphernalia, Sage said, "I wasn't guilty. I had a clean record. Why should I say I did something I didn't do?"

He was scheduled for a "dispositional" hearing October 15. That's where the state's attorney makes his last plea offer. On October 12, Gina Nelson of the Pennington County state's attorney's office left a message on Eric's phone: "If you don't plead to 'paraphernalia', we'll charge you with 'ingestion'" -- an offense unique to South Dakota.

South Dakota codified law 22-42-15 prohibits ingesting anything except alcohol for the purpose of intoxication, and they'll put you in jail for as long as a year, and fine you as much as $1,000, for wanting to get "high" instead of drunk. It also doesn't matter if you were even in South Dakota when you ingested the drug: "The venue for a violation of this section exists in either the jurisdiction in which the substance was ingested, inhaled, or otherwise taken into the body or the jurisdiction in which the substance was detected in the body of the accused."

Sage refused to cave in. At the hearing, Nelson did as promised, withdrew the paraphernalia charge and instituted an ingestion charge. A preliminary hearing was set for November 21, for a judge to decide whether there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

For Eric Sage, who has a spotless criminal record, the stakes had just leaped at least fourfold. Chewing and grinding.

The search had yielded .1 oz. of marijuana, according to Trautman's arrest report, which probably includes the weight of the baggie (1/10 oz. on a postal scale) and a pipe, both found in Barb's purse. Sage said he wasn't even aware that anything besides a pipe was in evidence until he saw the report in early November.

South Dakota law requires an arrest report on a Class 1 misdemeanor (ingestion), but not on a Class 2 (paraphernalia), so Trooper Trautman dutifully sat down nine weeks after the day he ticketed Eric Sage and wrote a report in which he alleges that Sage confessed to smoking marijuana that day out of the bag in question. The alleged confession took place after Trautman's dash-cam "stopped." But Sage maintains that Trautman merely informed him he was "doing him a favor" by only charging him with paraphernalia and not taking him to jail.

Trautman's report contains several statements that don't jibe with the camera's story, and he admitted not remembering some details more than two months after the fact. Still, the report contained enough claims by the trooper to arguably support the charge. In other words, Trautman tried to do the job the state's attorney wanted him to do.

A preliminary hearing was set for November 21. Sage retained an attorney, Rena Hymans of Sturgis, who called Assistant States Attorney Nelson repeatedly asking if she was really going to move forward on the case. She left detailed messages on Nelson's voice mail: "Are you really going to have a prelim on this?" The calls went unreturned.

On November 21, Sage drove the 241 miles from his Nebraska home to the Pennington County Courthouse in Rapid City. After meeting with Hymans, the pair went to the Clerk of Courts, who handed them a piece of paper saying the charges had been dismissed by Nelson five days earlier.

In dismissing the charges, Nelson cited "jurisdictional issue (charges involve Meade County)." In other words, faced with having to actually prosecute the case, Nelson and her boss, Pennington County States Attorney Glenn Brenner, punted. Since they now argued that the "ingestion" offense for which Sage was charged allegedly took place at Sturgis, in Meade County, Nelson dumped the case on Meade County States Attorney Jesse Sondreal, who has declined to pursue it. After all, who really wants to prosecute a case where there is no evidence to support the charge?

Despite losing a skirmish in the war on drugs, Brenner and Nelson were able to stick it to Sage one final time by making him take the long journey to Rapid City for nothing. Sage's expenses attributable to being charged with a crime that presented no evidence have mounted to at least $3,000. And so the war on drugs chews and grinds.

"They do this all the time at the Sturgis rally," Sage said after the charges were dropped. "They pull people over, then they figure out why. It's just revenue for them. I'd have played a part in that if I'd paid the ticket. It turns out I played a part anyway. I was mugged. I was mugged by guys in suits with law degrees who knew I wasn't guilty. They just wanted to see me pay. It was like sport to them."

Chewing and grinding, guilty or innocent, the beast doesn't care. Chew them up and swallow them, or chew them up and spit them out. They're still chewed up. Charge with a crime, and if they fight it, punish them. Make them pay. Up the ante. Make them pay again. And, if after having the gall to demand their day in court, they lose, whack them hard for taking up the court's valuable time. And so it goes. Just another day in the drug war. This time it was South Dakota, but it could be Anywhere, USA.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Eric Sage made a good point at the end of the story, "I was mugged by guys in suits with law degrees who knew i wasn't guilty". This points out just how professionalized this war on some drugs is operating, with elite lawmakers and employees of the state literally feeding off of regular working-class citizens. What an outrage that after refusing to give the state the false conviction they were after, Sage is still left holding the $3000 bill.
And an 'ingestion' law? what the hell! who gets to decide that alcohol is the sanctioned substance, and who is paying for this special designation?
thanks for doing this story, giving context to the awful laws that affect so many of our lives.

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 2:29pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

When this happens to enough people there will be a backlash. It's happening already. People are getting fed up with seeing it happen to themselves and others they care about. Decent, productive citizens preyed upon the system. The more people it happens to, the faster the day will come when the whole Drug War, Inc. collapses under it's own bloated weight.

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 3:34pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

If only that were true. This has happened to MORE than enough people for there to be a backlash. Literally thousands and thousands of people have been harassed and prosecuted/persecuted for marijuana use/possession. In Ohio, possession of less than 100 grams is generally considered a 3rd degree misdemeanor. The legislature made that law. However, if you are caught in possession of a marijuana cigarette that has already been lit (or a "roach"), you are then charged with drug abuse (a 1st degree misdemeanor). If you have ANY object which is used to store, smoke or aid in the use of marijuana, you are charged with possession of paraphernalia (a 4th degree misdemeanor). The point of all this being that it's all about harassing and persecuting anyone caught with any marijuana, since it's almost physically impossible to be in possession without also having paraphernalia (any object or bag or bottle used to store it). It's ALL about the money, about maintaining the status quo, the existing gravy train, where all the suits and uniforms can get all the money out of the poor saps who are paying their salaries. And all of the federal marijuana laws are initially based on racism against Mexicans. (The government "expert" smoked marijuana once whereupon he "turned into a bat and started flying around the room"). In Ohio, I have heard of drivers licenses being suspended because a small amount of marijuana was found in a person's house. They weren't driving, or in the car, nor had they been driving. The worst point is, the government has all the power, and the people CAN'T get any sensible person elected, because if you're not corrupt, (willing to play ball with and support the power elite), you have absolutely NO chance of ever getting elected. They are all corrupt. The people who are smoking the joint are NOT doing anything wrong. The LAWS are wrong, just like the slavery laws were wrong, just like the laws that imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII were wrong. Drug War, Inc. won't collapse under it's own weight because too many people are making too much money maintaining the status quo. It's all about the money and the power to control. I hope and pray that someday, this USA becomes a free country, but I see it going further in the opposite direction every day. You tell me, what's the answer. They won't even let the libertarian candidate participate in any of the "debates". They don't want anyone to hear the TRUTH and hypocrisy of the whole system. They abrogate the constitution with impunity on a daily basis, BECAUSE THEY CAN. Please tell me the answer and I'll fight 'till the day I die for justice. In the meantime, I CAN'T smoke anything, because I could lose my job, my doctor, my entire livelihood.

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 3:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I live in Albany, NY. In a past election a fellow named David Soares handily won a surprising upset victory as District Attorney largely on his stand against the monstrous Rockefeller drug laws. Unfortunately, he didn't wait to solidify his political base before he made a speech in Canada pointing out how the state's drug laws are a money machine for the courts and the law enforcement community. As a result the powerul police union severely took him to task by reminding him that he is obliged to uphold the law. All of the laws wether they be against the will and interests of his constituents. Another result of his untimely speech is that they then pushed a law through that allows the police to stop and question, frisk and demean anyone they choose to even without the laughable "probable cause" and "reasonable suspicion" rights that they already had. I am of two minds about Mr. Soare's speech. Was he right to jump the gun or was it an act of courage. I am inclined to believe the latter. The fight goes on and there will be casualties. If I remember correctly the Volstead Act took fourteen years to be shit-canned.

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 4:23pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Perhaps the people who attend Sturgis should consider a venue change. The revenue generated by this event has to be enormous. This power of the purse is the knife's edge to either make the authorities modify their ways or remove their potential cash cow. This strategy should be considered by folks all around the country for all types of events. After all it is "We the People", this is a capitalist society. So the power is indeed in the hands of us all. Power to the people.

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 7:17pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

$5 for a beer, and $8 for a hotdog, all prices are GREATLY inflated for those ten days. I already have plans for the first full week of August...and it does not include the Sturgis Rally. South Dakota can go to hell! -Eric Sage

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 1:14am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I have always wanted to go to South Dakota, if just for the scenery and monuments. I wouldn't go there now if you paid me. And I wish I had the money to publicize a national exposure of the way the corrupt, lying police and prosecutors are extorting money from people who want to visit their beautiful state. Make no mistake, it's corrupt, and it's extortion under the force of law. By the way, that's why the founding fathers included the 2nd amendment. To protect the PEOPLE from the GOVERNMENT. Read Thomas Jefferson and all those other true patriots who thought up this wonderful system which has been ruined. It's nothing about a militia, it's about being able to protect yourself from the government. (THEY ALL KNEW THAT POWER CORRUPTS) but, Halliburton seems to be doing quite well. Why should Cheney be able to withhold documents with notes of his meetings with the oil co execs? HE works for US! Those are our documents. Pure and unadulterated corruption.

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 4:13pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Located only a few miles from Rapid City, South Dakota (The home of State atourney Glen Brenner, and prosecuter Gina Nelson) is Mt. Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore is a mountian with the heads of our countries founding fathers carved into it looking over the nation they helped to create. These men dedicated their lives to make this a free, fair, and great nation with rights for the people that cannot be taken away. In the last few months officer Dave Trautman, Glen Brenner, Gina Nelson, and god knows who else raped and mugged me of these rights, right in front of our founding fathers. Is this what these great men had in mind? I think they would be disgusted. Disgusted not just in what they did to me but what they do to many others every August. Fight for our rights, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT! -Eric Sage

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 9:58pm Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

Besides the power of the purse, the event organizers could make some donations to the local community to improve PR. 2007 Burning Man gave the little town of Gerlach bordering the playa a 180KW solar power generator this year.

Something that offsets the money made from the criminal fines might be enough to placate or disuade the predatory highwaymen calling themselves cops (where's Robin Hood when you need him?).

Otherwise, these cops are always going to be looking for a little excitement to offset their otherwise dull small town existence with its unbelievably harsh winters.


Sat, 12/01/2007 - 12:51am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Eric Sage is a friend of my daughter and has been a guest in my home, a very respectful and intelligent young man. And, it turns out, possessed with the courage to fight for what is right at great personal cost. If every nickel and dime pot bust were contested and taken to trial, the marijuana prohibition would directly collapse under the weight of its own insanity, like the long-forgotten alcohol prohibition before it. Just "paying the fine" feeds the corrupt system, which targets those without the resources to fight back. God bless anyone who can find it in themselves to follow this brave young man's example and do the right thing. If you wonder about the declining respect for law enforcement, the police henchmen for the thieves in suits point toward the answer, exemplifying the old cliche, "too lazy to work and too scared to steal'.

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 9:33am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's hard to believe that in 2007, we still find ourselves fighting the same fight from the 60s and earlier. Times change, but not for pot - it's too much of a money-maker for our government. I fight the fight, but officials - you know, the ones WE pay - just don't listen. Police officers can never be trusted, and it's not until you learn the hard way...never say anything! They will miscontrue what you say so it will hurt you. They want you to think that if you cooperate and talk to them, it will help. It won't!!! When comparing pot smokers to alcoholics - Who gets angry or violent? Who gets sloppy? Who is more detrimental behind the wheel? Which one becomes a criminal? The answers are easy. But police officers are trained with blinders on, and will treat any pot smoker like a high-end criminal. If you're caught, keep your mouth shut. Fight the fight, and maybe in the next 100 years, pot will be legal again.

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 10:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

No matter what one should always demand a jury trial from the outset. It really screws up the money machine when people demand a trial by jury so charges like this tend to get dropped quickly.

Mon, 12/03/2007 - 3:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)


Wed, 12/05/2007 - 4:30am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

For those who don't like Sturgis, SD, YOU should know that there is a Sturgis, KY and they have a motorcycle Rally at the same time. Maybe you would find a friendlier atmosphere in Kentucky where Hemp used to be a cash crop...until the good old govt of USA, decided to institute another Prohibition...

Wed, 12/05/2007 - 6:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

A friend of mine was recently stopped in South Dakota, the cop had come up behind them and started to pass when he must have noticed the giant "dead Head" sticker on the side of the vehicle, dropped back and pulled them over. My friends girlfriend was taken to a South Dakota jail, where she was put in a general population area. The arrest was bullshit enough, but once in general population, she was the only white girl out of 53 inmates. The rest? 52 Souix indian women, mostly aged 40 or older.

Sounds like the war on Indians is still alive and well in South Dakota along with the war on drugs.

I say boycott those fascist sons a bitches.

Stay away from South Dakota.


Thu, 12/06/2007 - 9:26am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I live in SD and totally agree that the so called war on drugs is out of hand here. But isn't it everywhere?
Some friends of mine got pulled over in IA, searched and found to be in posession of a joint. The ramifications were way worse than here. Anyway, about the war on Indians....That's bullshit. There are higher arrest rates of Indians here because there are more Indians here. They get arrested for breaking the law, just like anyone else. (Keeping it simple, so you don't get confused.) What county were your friends arrested in? I'll bet it was one on or near the rez. Laws on the rez are different than off. When they leave the rez they have to abide by the laws everyone else is subject too, like having insurance, current tags and seat belts. They get picked up cuz there are eight people in a car with only six seat belts and are often found to be in violation of of other laws. Usually DUI laws. I don't know about you, but I feel a little better knowing that when they are out there on a state highway or city street, they too, must have insurance and be sober. By the way, I had the recent misfortune of being arrested in Penn Co, and everyone in my holding tank was white. Believe me, they didn't cut me any slack cuz I'm white.

Sat, 11/29/2008 - 2:19pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I know how it is to be stuck in that situation, currently Im fighting my own case. I was driving with out of state license the cop pull up and saw that I was brown skin and all of a sudden I was speeding.I was caught with 35 pounds first he thought I was native, but once he saw my last name and started questioning my immigration status and questioning why my english was so good.. and that some shit.

Tue, 03/10/2009 - 3:25pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

i am a south dakota native. i live in sturgis and can tell you first hand what is happening with our legal system here. during the rally they will arrest you on anything whether it is true or not then a balif calls a certain attorney here in town who then calls a judge and they walk through and announce that 500.00 gets you out of jail free. the balif gets paid the attorney gets a cut and the judge gets a cut. sturgis opperates in it's own legal system that anywhere else in the country would be a violation of our constitional rights. the legal system here is so corrupt and hear me when i say that if you come during the rally ask yourself this seeing a few motorcycles worth my freedom. freedom is not something we have here. they still operate our justice system like it is the old west. and just so you know casey engall is one of our prosecutors that brags about how many people she can lock up and how fast.if anyone was to investigate ms engalls legal practice i feel confident she would be the one in jail.

Wed, 09/16/2009 - 1:17pm Permalink

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