The Montana Supreme Court has overturned a man’s conviction for transporting drugs after finding the arresting officers violated his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Tuesday’s unanimous ruling sends the case back to District Court in Custer County, with an order reversing the judge’s decision that allowed prosecutors to use as evidence the 19 pounds (8.6 kilograms) of marijuana found in the trunk of the car the man was driving.
Officers began questioning Hoang Vinh Pham at a gas station in Miles City after he stared at a Montana Highway Patrol van loaded with 960 pounds (435 kilograms) of marijuana that was being taken to evidence storage in Billings.
They asked Pham where he had been, where he was going and eventually asked to search the car he was driving, court records said.
Before his trial, Pham filed a motion to suppress the evidence. It was denied in October 2018. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2019, the Montana State News Bureau reported.
The justices ruled that Pham likely felt he was not free to leave as he was being questioned by armed officers, and thus under the federal and state constitutions he had been “seized.”
In this case, a Division of Criminal Investigation agent approached Pham “based solely on Pham staring at the abnormal sight of an MHP van full of marijuana,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote.
After confirming that Pham was not lost — he said he was traveling from Butte to Minnesota — or committing any apparent offense, the agent “seized” Pham when he continued the conversation and asked to search his vehicle, the justices wrote.