Utah Highway Patrol illegally took evidence from man during traffic stop, appeals court rules
A man who has been in jail since pleading guilty in 2020 to smuggling drugs through Utah could now be freed after an appeals court ruled on Wednesday that he was convicted using illegally collected evidence.
In its decision, the 10th U.S. The Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that a Utah Highway Patrol trooper unlawfully stopped a traffic stop in 2019. As a result, judges determined that evidence gathered from the car search that followed were inadmissible and should not have been used to prosecute Antoine Dwayne Frazier.
The case will now return to federal court in Utah, where federal prosecutors can try the case again without evidence of the search. Frazier’s attorney, G. Fred Metos, said it’s likely the case will be dismissed for lack of evidence.
The Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Utah Highway Patrol declined to comment.
Do not rely on “hunches”
The soldier, Adam Gibbs, stopped Frazier at 9:06 a.m. on November 12, 2019, after allegedly observing Frazier speeding four to eight miles over the limit and not signaling a lane change for more than two seconds.
According to the ruling, Gibbs grew increasingly suspicious as he interacted with Frazier. First, he spotted a gym bag in a backseat, then a spray can of air freshener in the center console. The trooper also said Frazier didn’t fully roll down his window as they spoke and paused before answering questions, as if to “find the right answer but not necessarily the simple, correct answer.”
Gibbs decided that these sightings justified calling a K-9 to sniff the vehicle for drugs and, later, searching a federal database that tracks vehicle movements across the country. Police found approximately 1,000 fentanyl tablets and more than two pounds of cocaine in the car. Frazier also carried a gun. The database search revealed that Frazier had been in Kansas, heading west, three days prior.
Metos, Frazier’s lawyer, argued in a lawsuit that evidence gathered during the search was inadmissible because the soldier had unnecessarily prolonged the stop and had no reason to search the car – in violation of Frazier’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.
United States District Court Judge David Nuffer denied Metos’ motion to prohibit the evidence produced during the search. Nuffer said Gibbs had a reasonable suspicion of prolonging the stop by searching the car because of the sports bag, the air freshener and the way Frazier answered the soldier’s questions.
10th Circuit Chief Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich and U.S. Circuit Judges Stephanie K. Seymour and David M. Ebel disagreed.
“Our deference to law enforcement judgment extends to reasonable inferences drawn from specific and articulated facts,” Seymour wrote in the ruling, “and not to incomplete suspicions and unspecified hunches.”
At 9:11 a.m. on the day of the traffic stop, five minutes after Frazier was pulled over, the officer got into his patrol car, according to the ruling. But Gibbs didn’t immediately start writing a quote. Instead, he arranged the K-9 response. He searched the federal database at 9:19 a.m. The dog arrived at 9:24 a.m.
The appeals court judges did not believe the objects in Frazier’s car or his behavior warranted these additional investigative steps. Someone carrying a gym bag is not cause for a search, they said. Nor is it a seemingly unused air freshener spray. Seymour noted that Gibbs never reported smelling drugs or air freshener.
And, while Gibbs testified that Frazier’s “answering questions with questions” made him suspicious, Seymour wrote that it was a “dubious” standard for warranting research.
“If officers ask personal, seemingly irrelevant questions during traffic stops, it should come as no surprise – let alone grounds for suspicion – when a motorist asks them why,” Seymour wrote.
Every minute Gibbs spent performing tasks unrelated to the citation, he was unnecessarily and unlawfully extending the stoppage, according to the ruling.
Federal prosecutors charged Frazier in 2019 with distribution of fentanyl and cocaine and possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty to the charges in September 2020 and was sentenced to 180 months, or 15 years, in prison. He was incarcerated in a federal prison in Texas.
Frazier pleaded guilty on the condition that he could appeal the decision to allow evidence of the traffic stop.
“It was a case that Mr. Frazier and I felt strongly about in terms of the legitimacy of the stoppage,” Metos said. “We both felt the officer had very little reason to search his car, trying to extend the stop … and the 10th Circuit agreed.”
“I like to make a difference”
It’s unclear if Gibbs has or will receive any internal discipline related to the decision. Gibbs has worked for UHP since at least 2014, according to state employee records, and his work has made headlines in southern Utah.
About six months before arresting Frazier, St. George News reported that Gibbs stopped two cars in three days and found books of methamphetamine worth an estimated $1.5 million.
On May 23, 2019, police records show Gibbs stopped a 22-year-old motorist driving 90 mph in an 80 mph zone on Interstate 15 near Cedar City.
A probable cause statement said that when Gibbs was speaking with the driver and passenger, he saw a marijuana e-cigarette in the center console. He decided to search the car further and discovered 20 pounds of methamphetamine hidden under the seat and inside the luggage. The driver was charged in federal court and sentenced to four years in prison.
Three days later, Gibbs stopped another car on the stretch of freeway outside Cedar City. The tinted windows of this car appeared too dark and the passenger was not wearing a seat belt.
Gibbs said he checked the identity of the driver and passenger and was told none were valid.
“I also found inconsistent travel plans,” Gibbs wrote, “and began to suspect that the occupants were involved in criminal activity.”
He called a drug-sniffing dog. When the K-9 arrived and reported that he smelled like drugs, police found approximately 5 pounds of methamphetamine in the car and arrested the 35-year-old driver and 38-year-old passenger. They told Gibbs, according to police documents, that they were bringing the meth to Iowa.
Both were indicted in federal court and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges. The driver was sentenced to approximately five years and three months in prison and the passenger was sentenced to approximately four years in prison.
Three months after those drug busts, Gibbs helped return two girls who were allegedly kidnapped by a family member. He told St. George News he posted up on I-15 to keep an eye out for the car the girls were in — and eventually she drove by.
He stopped the car and the girls were brought home safely.
Gibbs described his work at St. George News as “like a needle in a haystack, trying to figure out which cars to stop and being able to investigate what we can, and find what we can.”
He added: “I like to make a difference. That’s what I like to do.
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