ST. PETERSBURG — Last fall, members of the Police Department's street crimes unit converged on a green sport utility vehicle spotted making a rolling right-hand turn at a red light.
The driver, Emanuel Bell, had just left a suspected drug dealer's house. Bell pulled into a McDonald's at Fourth Street and 38th Avenue N and held out his driver's license for the officer, who approached his window.
The officer made Bell get out, then searched a center console after seeing Bell moving his hands near there.
Finding nothing, he went to his cruiser to write Bell tickets for the missed stop and not wearing a seat belt. Other officers arrived and asked Bell to allow further search of his Ford Escape. He said no.
Several minutes later, Officer Brandon Bill approached the SUV and said he smelled faint marijuana and vanilla air freshener. He searched the Escape and found cocaine behind the passenger seat. He also found prescription pills in Bell's pocket.
Bell, 26, was taken to jail on drug trafficking charges.
But the case collapsed earlier this month after an unusual finding by a Pinellas judge, who didn't believe Bill. None of the other officers reported smelling marijuana and none was found.
"It stretches the limits of credulity for this court to believe that the search of the defendant's vehicle was based upon the odor of marijuana," Circuit Judge Michael Andrews wrote. "Here, Officer Bill's testimony is 'discredited, controverted and contradictory within itself,' and as such is incredible."
Prosecutors dropped the case.
Andrews' order, rare for its tone and content, created a buzz among local defense attorneys.
"I have never, in 5½ years of practice, seen a judge do this," said St. Petersburg lawyer Jordan Tawil, who represented Bell. "They just didn't have what they needed to get into that car. … When it comes to narcotics, some officers are willing to take that extra step. If that's a cowboy mentality, then I think that's what you have there."
Tawil and other defense attorneys said the ruling should prompt prosecutors to examine other cases involving Bill.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery disagreed, saying he doesn't see the judge's order affecting other cases.
"This is a fact-specific scenario in which there's a conflict in the evidence and the judge made a ruling," he said Thursday. "I don't think that that applies to the officer's credibility in general"
Tawil said he saw holes in the case from the beginning.
He said on that evening, Sept. 24, the traffic stop should have lasted only as long as it took for an officer to write the tickets.
Instead, in a defense motion, he said officers detained Bell for more than 25 minutes. One officer threatened to use "sniff dogs" to get the probable cause needed for a search and referred to Bell, who is black, as "boy."
Another officer asked Bell, who has past convictions for obstruction and drug possession, if he was a confidential informant. And when Bell wanted to call a lawyer, police refused to return his cellphone. Those details, included in a defense motion, are not in police reports, which indicate the stop lasted for only a few minutes.