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Court reverses drug conviction

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court reversed a Michigan man's 15-year drug conviction after finding that a Huntington police officer illegally stopped and searched the car he was riding in because of a missing passenger side mirror.

Last year, Lorenza Marcella Dunbar, of Warren, Mich., was convicted of one count of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance after a Huntington police officer stopped his car in early 2010 because of a missing passenger side mirror, according to a Supreme Court opinion released Tuesday afternoon.

The high court found that the officer, James Leist, stretched the definition of a state statute that allows law enforcement officers to pull over vehicles that have apparently defective equipment.

On Jan. 28, 2010, Dunbar was riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle driven by Jerrod Dillon. Leist noticed that the car did not have a side view mirror and pulled Dillon over.

Leist, on a "hunch," then called for a police dog to inspect the outside of the vehicle. The dog indicated that drugs were present, and a later search revealed a "substantial amount of controlled substances," according to the opinion.

Dunbar and Dillon were arrested and later indicted on several drug trafficking charges. Dunbar eventually pleaded guilty to one of the charges, and a Cabell County judge sentenced him to one to 15 years in prison.

He appealed the conviction on claims that Leist never had a reason to stop his vehicle.

State code indicates that cars must be properly equipped in order to occupy West Virginia roads. However, the portion of the code that pertains to mirrors states only that a car must have a mirror that allows the driver to see what is behind him or her, according to the opinion.

"Thus, the statute governing mirrors does not require a passenger side mirror," the opinion states.

The justices also found that in order for officers to stop vehicles in apparent disrepair, those vehicles must have issues that violate state law. Otherwise, police would be able to cite a vehicle for something as simple as a broken air conditioner or a dysfunctional radio, the opinion states.

Chief Justice Menis Ketchum dissented to Tuesday's decision, finding that Leist properly stopped Dillon. Ketchum, however, said that Dillon and Dunbar's arrests after the initial stop was unconstitutional because police officers cannot search vehicles based only on a "hunch," and would have voted to overturn the appeal if it was filed along those grounds.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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