An Alaskan couple arrested for the possession of hundreds of marijuana plants will face a new hearing after a federal court reversed a lower court's ruling to suppress key evidence in the case.
Trace and Jennifer Thoms of Wasilla, Alaska, were detained in 2010 after Alaska State Trooper Kyle Young obtained a warrant primarily by claiming that he had detected the smell of marijuana from inside his vehicle. A subsequent search of the residence turned up around 500 plants and other evidence that the couple was conducting a large-scale grow operation.
An initial motion to counter the evidence was rejected by a magistrate, but in a subsequent effort, District Judge John Sedwick found that the Thomses had successfully demonstrated that it would have been impossible for Young to have smelled the plants.
In his testimony, Trace Thoms argued that his operation was simply too well-outfitted and too isolated for Young to have sniffed it out.
The Anchorage Daily News reported that at least 450 feet of densely forested area stood between the road where Young claimed to have caught the smell and the building containing the plants. The structure was windowless and had only four doors, all of which Thoms claimed to have kept meticulously sealed. Thoms also testified to having a state-of-the-art filtration system that he kept in working order.
The Thoms' defense even brought in olfactory specialist David Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who Judge Sedwick found had "ultimately opined that there was a 'zero' probability that Young smelled marijuana as he claimed."
In the end, Sedwick threw out the evidence after ruling that the odds of Young being able to detect the smell and track it directly to the Thomses property were too unlikely.
Prosecutors for the case followed up with an appeal of their own, however, and in a unanimous decision this week, the 9th Circuit ruled that the district court's overturning of the magistrate was improper.
"In the business of judging, there is nothing more important than getting the facts right," wrote Judge Carlos Bea, according to Courthouse News Service. "In many cases, factual determinations are made after hearing live testimony regarding two competing versions of critical events.
To further the accuracy and integrity of these determinations, we hold that a district court abuses its discretion when it reverses a magistrate judge's credibility determinations, made after receiving live testimony and favorable to the government, without viewing key demeanor evidence, with one exception: where the district judge finds that the magistrate judge's credibility determinations had no legally sufficient evidentiary basis, so that, were they jury determinations, judgment as a matter of law would issue for the defendant."
With the evidence now available to prosecutors, the Thomses will be subject to a new hearing.
The Daily News reports that they originally faced three drug counts, a charge of conspiracy to launder more than $1 million in proceeds from their marijuana operation, and forfeiture of various properties including their home. Jennifer Thoms also faced 14 separate counts of money laundering.
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