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Feature: The Bible, a Black Bag, and a Drug Dog -- A Florida Drug War Story

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #513)

[Editor's Note: This week's contribution to our occasional series on the day-to-day workings of the drug war brings together some all-too-common abuses of the spirit -- if not the letter -- of the law in the name of enforcing drug prohibition. People smile grimly and joke about the "drug war exception to the Fourth Amendment," a rhetorical nod to the corrosive impact prohibition has had on Americans' right to be safe and secure from unwarranted searches and seizures. Here we will see it in action. And like last week's tale of woe in South Dakota, this one also involves marijuana and driving.]

Harold Baranoff lives in idyllic Key West, Florida, where, during the recent real estate boom, he bought in, only to find himself in financial trouble with a pair of heavily mortgaged homes and plummeting real estate values. In a bid to dig himself out of that hole, Baranoff headed north out of the Keys in his RV, carrying high hopes and 190 pounds of pot.

Harold Baranoff
Baranoff's north-bound journey was going smoothly as he drove through central Florida. As he passed through Lakeland County, Baranoff had the ill-fortune to run into a drug law enforcement effort disguised as a traffic enforcement exercise. As a US district court judge noted in a decision on a motion in the case, Lakeland County Sheriff's officers "were performing drug interdiction by stopping drivers for traffic infractions."

[Editor's Note: The US Supreme Court forbade law enforcement from setting up drug checkpoints in November 2000 in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, arguing that the attendant searches could not constitutionally be conducted without probable cause. Although the court has allowed the use of checkpoints to try to catch drunk drivers, it drew a distinction between law enforcement activities conducted for public safety ends, i.e. DUI checkpoints, and those conducted for law enforcement purposes, i.e. drug checkpoints. In Baranoff's case, as is often the case across the land, police were using traffic (public safety) enforcement as a pretext for what they were actually interested in: catching people carrying drugs, as the court noted in the paragraph above.]

At precisely 9:19pm on May 15, Lakeland County Deputy Sheriff William Cranford pulled Baranoff over because he had a broken tail light. Sheriff Carson McCall arrived on the scene moments later. Cranford asked Baranoff's permission to search his vehicle, which Baranoff refused. Cranford then asked if Baranoff would stick around long enough for a drug dog to arrive to sniff his vehicle. Baranoff again refused. Having radioed in Baranoff's license and registration information, Cranford told Baranoff he could go. The incident was over at 9:30, according to radio dispatch records cited in the ruling on the motion.

Four minutes later and 3 1/2 miles down the road, Baranoff was pulled over again, this time by a Deputy Condy for "weaving in the road." Again, Sheriff McCall arrived on the scene moments later. McCall later testified that he did not tell Condy he had just stopped and checked Baranoff. Baranoff and his attorney believe the second stop was no coincidence, citing testimony in hearings about a mysterious dispatcher transmission about a "black bag" on the highway just moments before Condy pulled Baranoff over. No other references to the black bag -- where was it? did anyone check it out?--exist. Unfortunately, tapes of the actual dispatcher transmissions were unavailable; the sheriff said they had been destroyed in a freak lightning strike.

Here's where it gets even weirder and more disturbing. As the court put it: "When Condy walked up to the driver's side window to talk to the defendant, he smelled a strong smell of cleaning products emanating from defendant's vehicle and an open Bible laying inside the motor home. He also noticed a religious bumper sticker with language about angels on it. Deputy Condy testified that in his experience, religious symbols are often used to cover the person's illegal activities. When Deputy Condy was speaking to the defendant, Condy suspected the defendant was nervous. Consequently, Condy asked Sheriff McCall to summon the narcotics detection dog officer to the scene."

Here, Deputy Condy is trying to establish probable cause for either searching the vehicle or detaining Baranoff until the drug dog could arrive. While observations that a driver is "nervous" or that there are strange odors emanating from the vehicle would appear to be reasonable steps toward that end, the suggestion that the presence of a Bible is indicative of criminality appears simply bizarre.

Condy spent the 13 minutes between the call for the drug dog and its arrival writing Baranoff two traffic tickets, one for the broken tail light and one for weaving. When the drug dog arrived, it alerted on the vehicle, Condy discussed the hefty stash of weed, and Baranoff went to jail. Baranoff stayed in jail for nearly six months, denied bond after the DEA said he was a flight risk.

Baranoff only walked out of jail a few weeks ago, after entering a contingent plea of guilty to marijuana distribution charges. While he could face up to 30 years in federal prison, given his clean criminal history, the now advisory federal sentencing guidelines have him doing about 3 1/2. He will find out for sure when he is sentenced in February.

But Baranoff didn't accept the contingent guilty plea until after the federal district court judge ruled against him on his motion to suppress the evidence seized in the traffic stop and search. Baranoff and his attorney, Terry Silverman, argued that the second traffic stop was actually an unlawful continuation of his first encounter with the Lakeland County Sheriff's Department, and that Deputy Condy was well aware of the first stop. Condy pulled him over simply to continue the sheriff's thwarted drug investigation, Baranoff argued, and the evidence seized is thus tainted and should be dismissed.

Wrong. The federal district court judge agreed with the government that there were in fact two separate traffic stops, that they were legitimate, and that even if the second stop was a pretext, as it was "reasonable" as long as there was probable cause to investigate. Which brings us to the Bible and the religious bumper sticker. Once again, the judge swallowed the government's case, hook, line, and sinker. City Deputy Condy's training and experience as the department's head narcotics officer, the judge blandly accepted his assertion that the presence of the Bible indicated possible criminal activity. "The religious items in and on the van...created a set of circumstances giving him (the officer) 'reasonable suspicion that an additional crime was being committed,'" the judge wrote.

With his only defense thus demolished, Baranoff agreed to the "contingent" guilty plea, meaning that the plea is contingent on his losing his appeal of the motion to suppress. He hopes to remain free on bond pending a decision on his appeal. Otherwise, he will be going to prison in February, since his appeal could take up to a year.

"We're disappointed in the ruling," said Silverman. "We thought we had a good factual record and good testimony."

Silverman didn't want to say more for the record while the case is on appeal, and he undoubtedly wishes his client felt the same way. But Baranoff doesn't want to stay silent. He feels not only like his rights have been violated, but that the way there were violated is a threat not just to him but to the rest of us as well.

"If such religious displays can be considered 'indicators of illegal narcotic activity,' then anyone with a bumper sticker, bible, fish symbol, Saint Christopher medal, cross, Star of David, spiritual or religious T shirt, etc. would be suspect," he said. "This sets a dangerous precedent that should worry every American, believer or not."

Convicted criminal that he is, Baranoff now wears an electronic ankle bracelet and is allowed to leave home only to go to work. "My houses are in foreclosure, and I'm driving taxi five nights a week," he sighed. "I was just trying to deal with my overdue mortgages."

Baranoff may have made some bad choices, ranging from deciding to carry a large quantity of marijuana to not thoroughly inspecting his vehicle before using it for that purpose. But he also suffered from the illusion that law enforcement would fight fair; that police would not subvert Supreme Court rulings by dressing up drug-fighting as traffic enforcement, that they would not "get their man" by conducting a bogus second stop, and that they would not resort to such stretches as arguing that the presence of a Bible is an indicator of criminal activity. Welcome to the "drug war exception to the Fourth Amendment," Mr. Baranoff.

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)

What will be considered considered an "indicator of criminal activity" in the future? Why a child in the car of course. Doesn't everyone "borrow" a child just for such purposes?? Hmmm??

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 5:34pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Our freedoms, our civil rights are being destroyed slowly but surely. The "WAR on terror", the "War on drugs". What a god send to the oppressor. Tap our phone, create files on us. Stop us when we travel in the name of public safety. "Hey, Jesus Loves You sticker, he's sure to be carrying drugs". Soon enough there will be "check points" , soon enough the abuses will get totaly out of control. If they ever manage to take our right to bear arms away.

If we don't help ourselves.
Nobody else will.

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 9:38pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Look, its all about power. If they were to do what is obviously the right thing to do for the people, they would have to cut their budget, and man power. It is all there to fight drugs. If this were taken out of the equation, and only real crime to be faught, then all the money for prisons, and cops and pocket linning would go away....and that will not happen. Try to take the kings crown and see what happens pesant!

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 10:09pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe you mean Lafayette County, Florida as there isn't a Lakeland County.

Also Owen Carson McCall, Jr. is the Sherriff of Lafayette County.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 12:29am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

After 35 years of federal service I was subject to randum drug testing.
I retired!!
I no longer feel a partnership with my government, at any level.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 1:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Besides sympathy for Baranoff, and outrage over this country's marijuana laws, and the waste of human and financial resources prosecuting nonviolent citizens, this story inspires several bumpersticker ideas:

Who Would Jesus Search?

Drug Free Atheist

Do you think that last one would make the police skip over you?


Sat, 12/08/2007 - 1:37pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As appalling as the excuses for the search (the bible, etc.), I fear that it's the tip of the iceberg. Those who trample the Bill of Rights and US Constitution are not interested in justice or even rational thinking. A Tinkie Winkie sticker or pleasure toy or Snoop cd could be next. Perhaps anti-Bush or anti-war stickers are also 'probable cause' for harassment and the trampling of due process. The sad reality is that it's become like pre-war Germany, with the good citizens expected to sheepishly follow all that they're told. Fortunately, we have the technological means to attempt worldwide education, deprogramming, and action.

Rev. Bookburn
Radio Volta

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 2:24pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There is no Lakeland County in Florida. There is Lake County, I think.

The city of Lakeland is in Polk County.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 10:55pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There is no correction of course. The powers that be are too embedded, and one day they (the government) are going to come after us for sitting around this forum. It is evening of the day, and soon the night comes. We are painting a target on ourselves to stand and speak the truth now. Hatred runs as high as ignorance now, and unless we the people vote outside of the ruling parties (The dems and republicans) we are doomed to ride this out to the bitter end. Pre ww2 Germany one wrote, and he was right. The drug war is just a sliver of the war being waged for the lives of the people in this country. If our government were to be held to the same laws as the people, we might have had a fighting chance, but they are not and we don't.

D.L.Matkins Sr.

Sun, 12/09/2007 - 3:40am Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

One of the worst features of the drug war is that without a complaining victim, legal evidence of drug crimes must be obtained either through informants, entrapment, or serendipitous luck.

Violating investigative legal restraints is emphasized in drug enforcement to a degree that has become a science. It’s always been that way. It’s why narcotics cops sometimes refer to their investigative reports as “lie sheets.”

These types of police practices are corrosive to the justice system in numerous ways. For instance, it is likely that the rejection of police evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial was predicated in part on the jurors’ familiarity with illegal police tactics involving planted evidence as they are employed in South Central LA, and elsewhere.

The examples are limitless. A friend of mine was stopped by a traffic cop in Utah, most likely because she had a Deadhead sticker on the bumper of her Jeep. When the cop saw she was just an innocent waif of a girl on her way to Wyoming to visit her parents, he didn’t ask to search the car. Instead, he gave her a ticket for doing 57-mph in a 55-mph zone—with no consideration of speedometer error. She didn’t fight the ticket. It was issued in a faraway state, and the infraction from a different state would never show up on her driving record. Since then, which was about fifteen years ago, I recently read that some Utah cops pulling this crap were finally sued.

In another example of purposeful investigative malfeasance, one involving a big drug bust of a planeload of drugs from Mexico, the defendants hired a commercial forensics team to examine their location to find evidence of police tampering, since the police could’ve only known about the drug flight by overhearing a specific, private conversation.

The forensics team found it. Instead of tapping the phone, and without a warrant, the cops had actually drilled a hole through the wall from the outside and inserted a microphone. The police had afterwards been sloppy about removing all the wire from the hole when they removed the hidden mike.

A guilty verdict against the defendants in the smuggling case was procured as necessary to prevent the firing of several narcotics officers. Upon sentencing, the prosecutor hoped to placate the defendants by recommending a sentence to the court that was ridiculously lenient considering the amount of drugs involved. The defendants appealed anyway, and won.

With the current illicit drug laws, we have a judicial system where a factor of guilt is based solely upon one’s proximity to an illegal substance. This situation begs for ways that allow bigoted, hatemongering cops to exercise their xenophobic-based aspirations against the public at large. Until drug prohibition is abolished, we will continue to see this drama played out time and time again.


Sun, 12/09/2007 - 3:05pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Never mind that Baranoff was transporting 190lbs of illegal drugs (by his own admission)! Never mind that he was breaking the law! I guess we should abolish all laws including rape and murder and be able to do what we want with no government to hinder us.

Sun, 12/30/2007 - 5:35pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Do you really think rape and murder are comparable to mere drug offenses? I mean, people don't want to be raped or murder, whereas people who use drugs do want to be able to buy the drugs, and all parties involved just want to be left alone. I see little that is illuminating in the rape and murder comparison.

Still, even if we set aside the legalization arguments, due process and having the police obey the laws while enforcing the laws is no less important. Any abuse they can commit while targeting an actual felon is abuse they can commit against any of the rest of us. This idea that anything goes if a law was broken is dangerous and destructive to a free society.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sun, 12/30/2007 - 5:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

your rights should cease the moment you are caught doing wrong, only the people caught are always trying to find a "loop hole " in the officers investigation, which is horse crap. only the losers or guilty are the one trying to appeal to the higher courts. isn't it interesting that people who do right, never have a need to appeal anything to the us suppreme court? people that do illegal acts will always go down and if you beat one case you will go down the next time.

Mon, 01/21/2008 - 3:06am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

things like law enforcement sticker, religous stickers a large opened bible on the dashboard my not seem to indicate drug activities to you, but do you have these in the car right now? i am religous but yet i dont cary a large opened bible on my dash board. number one, it will slide of the first time i make a turn. people grow up, the fact is you judge a law enforcement officer when he testifies to these stickers or bible, but do you stop to think, this guy actually had marijuanna in the rv! thats because with all these stickers present and acting nervous, it sends a large red flag that there was something illegal about this person, otherwised he would have cared less. i would care less and would not be offended if a police offer wanted to check my car. personally it should be the right of the goverment to check all cars on the highways when stopped for a traffic violation, this would make our country safer. worried about your "rights", grow up, please we all have the best right of all the world and that is we live in a great country called "the united states". another question, do we own the highway? no! so if you do illegal activities then staty on your property and don't come out. other wise people reconized that police do what they do to but "bad guys" behind bars! think about it the only people who appeal conviction are the dead beat criminals.

Mon, 01/21/2008 - 3:18am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

For what it's worth...
The Bible was not "large" but simply a normal size. It was not open and was not on the dash but on a seat in the back of the RV. There were not multiple bumper stickers, but merely one.
If a bible and a bumper sticker are considered legal grounds for search, both the 1st and 4th amendment are history. Yes, next step is the appeals court.

H. Baranoff

Sat, 02/09/2008 - 4:25pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The mentality of some law enforcement people and their sympathizers is astonishing. They say 'we have the most rights in the world,' then express their contempt for due process and court appeals. In other words, they are gestapo-wannabees but restricted by what's left of the Bill of Rights. The 'probable cause' listings are beyond stupid. It's like a child who changes the rules every game. Next week, probable cause could be flags or retard ribbons on the vehicle. After that, perhaps probable cause could be indicated by air fresheners.

Then we hear about the 'bad guys.' After the release of thousand of violent criminals to make room for non-violent marijuana users... after the statistics of the last three decades reveal that law enforcement people are at the top of the list for domestic violence every year (no exceptions) and a variety of crimes/ corruption.. after the countless cases like this one where utter contempt for the law and due process are exhibited in an outrageous manner... the rhetoric about 'bad guys' may not be so simple.

Rev. Bookburn
Radio Volta

Sun, 02/10/2008 - 10:49am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

are you kidding me. You complain that police use bogas efforts. and that it is not fair. drug traffickers have more money better technology. have high tech hidden compartments and using a traffic stop is not fair. just so you know drug dealers dont want the war on drugs to stop. you should do better research instead of smoking so much.

John Edwards
Nashville Tn

Wed, 05/07/2008 - 6:37pm Permalink
Inv Condy (not verified)

Ok, the bible, bumper sticker, clergy shirt, and nervous behavior were not probable cause for the search. They were simply indicators that told me something might be wrong here. Calling a K9 to sniff the RV that alerted on the RV was probable cause under state and federal law for me to search the RV. Mr Baranoff was breaking the law and simply got caught now he has to pay. The traffic stop and search were both upheld in a Federal Suppression Hearing and then Mr Baranoff pled guilty.

So you dont think drugs are bad like rape and murder huh? Well check the stats. Drugs are linked to a number of murders, thefts, burglaries, home invasion robberies and many more. When people are addicted and have to get that next high some of them dont care what it takes to get it including murder. A study done in 1991 showed that 10% Federal Inmates and 17% of State Inmates committed their crimes to obtain money for drugs. Dont sound like alot, you should see how many people are in prison and that was 1991, drug use has definately increased since then. Drugs are not a good thing and do cause problems for people other than the user.

I have not nor will I ever infringe on anyone's Constitutional Rights, I am a patriot, God loving, working American. Thank you reading my comment.

Inv Condy
Lafayette County Sheriff's Office

Mon, 08/24/2009 - 11:08am Permalink

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