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December 12, 2007 - Rapid City Journal (SD)

OpEd: The War On Drugs Chews And Grinds On People

By Bob Newland (Special to Weekly News)

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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

Sage was stopped by Highway Patrolman Dave Trautman 10 miles east of Rapid City on Interstate 90 for weaving in his own lane. Jorge pulled over also and stopped ahead of Eric's bike, which was ahead of the patrol car. The patrol car's dashcam records video of what happens in front and audio of what's said in the car.

Trautman tickets Sage for a minor traffic infraction, then asks him to wait by the guardrail while he talks to Jorge. Trautman brings Jorge to the car, berates him for tailgating, then asks for permission to search the pickup. Jorge tells him the pickup is Eric's, but gives permission when Trautman tells him the driver has that right.

Trautman leaves Jorge in the car, gets out and pauses to say something 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 has the women sit on the grass at the highway's edge. He spends 16 minutes searching the pickup, pours out a beer and comes back to the patrol car with a handbag and one of the women, Barb.

His first audible comment is, "There's weed in your purse." "Yeah," she says.

"Where's the weed that was in the glovebox?" he asks. Barb is bewildered by the question. She admits 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 asks. "Yeah," she says.

Trooper Trautman walks to the pickup again and ruffles around on the right side. When he re-enters the patrol car, he says, "Here's what I'm gonna do. Everybody's admitted smoking weed ..."

The tape ends at this point. Sage says he was told that the camera "stopped."

An appropriate ticket for open container was issued, along with tickets to all four people for "possession of paraphernalia." All were allowed to continue down the road.

Barb paid her paraphernalia ticket, about $250. Kalie paid her open container ticket. Jorge is considering what to do. Eric returned to Rapid City Aug. 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.

He was scheduled for a "dispositional" hearing Oct. 15. That's where the state's attorney makes his last plea offer. On Oct. 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."

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

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.

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 ounce of marijuana, according to Trautman's arrest report, which probably includes the weight of the baggie (1/10 ounce on a postal scale), and a pipe, both found in Barb's purse.

Sage says 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 that has Eric allegedly saying in the patrol car, at a point after the camera "stopped," that he had smoked that day out of the bag in question. Eric maintains that Trautman merely informed him that he was "doing him a favor" by only charging him with paraphernalia and by not taking him to jail.

Trautman's report contains several statements that don't jibe with the camera's story, and he admits not remembering some details. Nevertheless, it contains enough claims by the patrolman to warrant the charge. In other words, it tried to do the job the state's attorney wanted it to do.

Chewing and grinding. In early November, Brenner made noises to a reporter about transferring the case to Meade County, where Sturgis is located, and where Brenner claimed the "ingestion" -- that he had no evidence even took place -- took place.

Sage retained a lawyer, Rena Hymans of Sturgis. She called Gina Nelson several times during the week prior to Eric's preliminary hearing on Nov. 21. She left detailed messages on Nelson's voice mail. "Are you really going to have a prelim on this?" Nelson didn't return any of the calls.

Eric drove the 241 miles from his house to the Pennington County Court House on Nov. 21. He met with Rena and they went to the clerk of courts, who handed them a piece of paper that said that the charges had been dismissed by Gina Nelson on Nov. 16. Her reason was, "jurisdictional issue (charges involve Meade County)." State's Attorney Glenn Brenner and assistant SA Gina Nelson had presented one final finger to their victim.

It's not hard to see why Brenner might have wanted to hand this case off. Even the most vicious prosecutor rarely attempts to win a trial with no evidence against the accused. With no potential loss-of-face involved, Meade County State's Attorney Jesse Sondreal probably said, "No, thank you," to the offer, if it were even made. Justice was served in the end, right?

Sage's expenses attributable to being charged with a crime that presented no evidence have mounted to at least $3,000.

The beast doesn't care. Chew 'em up and swallow 'em, or chew 'em up and spit 'em out. They're still chewed. Charge 'em with a crime. If they fight it, punish 'em, even if there's no evidence. Up the ante. See if they can take the heat. Make 'em spend their money. If the accused fight and lose, whack 'em hard for taking up the court's valuable time.

If the accused fight and "win." it's still another day of chewing and grinding -- on a different victim. It's "Next" on the court docket.

The War on Some Drugs has endless hunger.

Bob Newland publishes the online magazine He lives near Hermosa (SD).

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