Meth charges dropped after judge rules Moorhead police search unlawful
MOORHEAD, Minn. — A Clay County judge ruled a police search during a Moorhead traffic stop last fall was improper, leading to serious drug charges being dismissed against two people found with a significant stash of methamphetamines.
In his ruling issued last month, Clay County District Court Judge Galen Vaa threw out the search in part because he didn't find a police officer's claim that he could see Galloway's heart pounding through the fabric of her shirt "realistic or credible."
Larissa Galloway, 22, Moorhead, was the driver of a car stopped by Moorhead police on Oct. 20 for having a headlight out. Galloway was charged with two drug-related felonies after police searched the vehicle and discovered meth. A passenger in the vehicle, Levi Melby, 24, Fargo, also faced charges stemming from the traffic stop.
Charges against both were dismissed after Galloway's lawyer, Bruce Ringstrom Jr., challenged the vehicle search, arguing the officer who initiated the traffic stop did not have sufficient reason to have the vehicle searched.
According to court documents filed in the case:
After making the traffic stop, the police officer involved, Broc Bartylla, asked Galloway a series of probing questions while she attempted for many minutes to come up with proof of insurance on her cellphone.
Bartylla testified at a court hearing that during the course of the questioning both Galloway and Melby displayed signs of nervousness, and the officer said he could see Galloway's heart pounding through her shirt.
The officer said when Melby tried to hand an ID card to him, Melby's hand was so shaky he dropped the ID card.
Based on his growing suspicions regarding the pair, Bartylla called in a police K-9 and the dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs inside the car, which led to the discovery of about 4 ounces of methamphetamine.
Ringstrom filed paperwork asking the court to suppress evidence stemming from the search, arguing that whatever nervousness may have been displayed by Galloway was insufficient grounds to support a search of her vehicle.
Vaa agreed, writing in his March 14 ruling that police "did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion" to expand the scope of the stop and therefore subsequent searches of the car and the occupants' cellphones should not have occurred.
In addition to doubting that Bartylla could actually see Galloway's heart pounding, the judge said the questioning of the driver distracted her from finding her proof of insurance and unduly extended the length of the traffic stop.
The judge also said that a typical citizen who was subjected to the same type of questioning would likely become extremely nervous and agitated.
"There is nothing wrong with the notion of building good public relations by a law enforcement officer engaging in general conversation with a person involved in a traffic stop," Vaa wrote in his ruling.
But it was clear Bartylla was intent on expanding the scope of the stop based on the type of questions he posed to Galloway, Vaa said, including asking whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle and when she'd last used illegal drugs.
After Vaa dismissed charges against Galloway, Clay County Attorney Brian Melton's office, citing prosecutorial discretion, dropped the charges against Melby.
Melton said though he was disappointed in the judge's ruling, he doesn't plan to appeal it.
"We had an officer that did an outstanding job and got a large quantity of drugs off the street. His instincts were correct," Melton said, adding he believes police had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle.
Ringstrom said throwing out improper searches "reduces the chances that the rest of us will be searched without a good legal reason."
"If officers searched everyone they pulled over for speeding or broken headlights, they would certainly find more contraband and evidence of illegal activity," Ringstrom said.
"But," he added, "they would also intrude upon the privacy of countless otherwise law-abiding Americans."
Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said he couldn't speak to the specifics of the case but noted officers make decisions every day that may be challenged at some point in the court process.
"Everybody in this country, when accused, has the right to go to court and that is the place where you have the opportunity to present both sides and have a decision made. We respect that process," said Jacobson, who added that officer Bartylla has since taken a job with a police department in the Twin Cities.
"He (Bartylla) did a very good job, providing a very high level of service to this community on many fronts," Jacobson said.