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Judge throws out some evidence in Latin Kings trial

by Jordan Green

by Jordan Green jordan@yesweekly.com

The US government agreed to not present evidence obtained from a 2007 search of a house occupied by the North Carolina Latin Kings that defense counsel had sought to have suppressed on the basis that it violated the group’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

But in federal court in Winston-Salem on Tuesday US District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. ruled that the government will be allowed to present evidence gathered from two vehicle stops that the defendants had sought to have suppressed on similar grounds. The hearing was held in preparation for a federal racketeering trial scheduled for later this year.

Assistant US Attorney Robert Lang told Beaty that the government is not interested in entering any evidence from a raid by the Greensboro Police Department on a house at 2809 Keeler St. in June 2007. Lang did not explain the decision in open court, and later declined to speak to a reporter about the matter.

Michael Patrick, the public defender assigned to North Carolina Latin Kings leader Jorge Cornell, argued in a motion that an affidavit filed by the federal Safe Streets Task Force in support of a warrant to search the residence failed to establish probable cause.

Eric Fink, a law professor at Elon Law School in Greensboro, cited the search during a press conference in early August in which clergy and lawyers raised concerns that the federal government is trampling on civil liberties with the case. Fink characterized the case as not being “about alleged criminal acts by specific people in a particular city,” arguing that instead it “really is an instance of a much broader pattern of repression and retaliation and intimidation against any kind of dissent, any kind of resistance to oppression.”

Fink said, “The police do have the responsibility to gather evidence where there’s a real crime. But our Constitution protects us from unwarranted and unreasonable searches and seizures, unreasonable intrusions of our homes and our private places where the government has no real reason or justification for barging in and rummaging through our stuff.

“Those allegations are simply insufficient as a matter of law to justify the issuance of a search warrant,” he added. “The allegations essentially said, ‘An unnamed person told us — an unnamed person who we’re not going to tell you anything about; we’re not going to tell you anything about this person or why we should believe what they say — an unnamed person claims that they saw some unidentified individuals somewhere in the vicinity of this house engaged in drug activity.’ This in a neighborhood in Greensboro where, unfortunately, drug activity in public is not unheard of. Nothing to connect these individuals with this house.

Imagine if someone on your block was outside smoking some marijuana and the police wanted a search warrant for your house, and the police said, ‘We saw someone smoking marijuana on this block and it’s the same block where you live and we’re going to get a search warrant on your house to look for marijuana.’” Cornell’s lawyer also attempted to get the court to throw out evidence obtained by Greensboro police in an April 2010 vehicle stop in which two Latin Kings members, Richard Robinson and Wesley Williams, were stopped at about 4:30 a.m. in a rented silver Dodge Caravan. Cornell was not in the vehicle at the time of the stop, but had rented it.

The federal indictment alleges that Cornell “ordered Robinson and Williams to complete a ‘mission’ on behalf of the Latin Kings. Robinson and Williams obtained an assault rifle, a shotgun and more than 90 rounds of ammunition to carry out the ‘mission’ ordered by Cornell.” The allegation is one among numerous overt acts cited by the government as being part of an ongoing criminal conspiracy by the group.

The police seized the weapons. Officer Joshua Hartong testified that he charged Robinson and Williams with carrying concealed weapons.

Beaty denied the motion to suppress evidence seized from the vehicle on the basis that Cornell did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy considering that he was not in the vehicle at the time of the stop, and on the basis that Hartong had reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

Patrick attempted to discredit Hartong’s testimony that he saw the van continue through a stop sign without stopping at the intersection of West Terrell Street and Freeman Mill Road. The officer testified that he was traveling north in the left lane of Freeman Mill Road at a speed of about 35 mph when he observed the traffic violation, adding that the street was well lit. Under cross-examination by the Patrick, Hartong acknowledged that the stop sign is some distance from Freeman Mill Road.

Approaching West Terrell Street on northbound Freeman Mill Road, the back of the stop sign is visible from the side for a brief moment but then is obscured by a telephone as the intersection gets closer. Patrick told the defendant’s supporters after the hearing that he had hoped to get Hartong to specify in a photo of the intersection exactly where he spotted the van. The photo did not show the stop sign, and Hartong testified that he had seen the vehicle as it was approaching the stop sign.

Hartong testified that he activated his blue lights and conducted the stop on West Florida Street. He said that he did not know who was in the van before initiating the stop. As he was walking towards the vehicle, he said he observed a bicycle in the back but that it struck him as odd that there was no clutter in the van. He said he was able to see into the van with his flashlight and look at the floorboards.

When he approached the driver’s side, Hartong said he noticed a tattoo of a crown and the initials “LK” on top of Robinson’s left hand. He recognized Williams, the passenger, from a previous encounter.

“I called for an assist car due to the fact that at that time I knew there were gang members in the car,” Hartong testified, adding that he associated violence and guns with the group. Hartong said he did not ask for permission to search the van.

The officer testified that he asked the two backup officers to “re-approach” the van while he went back to his car to his patrol car to write a traffic citation. At that time he heard one of the officers “yell out that there was a gun in the car that I had not previously seen.” The police located a 12-gauge Remington shotgun, four rounds of ammunition and a black case that contained an assault rifle, and three boxes of ammunition directly behind the driver and passenger and in front of the first back-row seat.

“It was all ammunition which would easily pierce any of our vests if fired upon,” Hartong testified. He said the officers drew their guns on Robinson and Williams, and detained the two men on the curb while they completed the search.

Cross-examination by Patrick raised the question of whether the weapons had ever, in fact, been concealed.

“The government is not contending that the guns were brought out sometime after the stop was made, is it?” Judge Beaty asked.

“Not for the purposes of this hearing,” Lang responded.

The Rev. Nelson Johnson said after the hearing: “From the beginning, the weapons were in open view. I think what you have to say is that the government conceded that the weapons were not concealed.

“Both weapons were legal,” he added. “Otherwise they would have been charged for having them.”

The trial is currently set for Oct. 15, but the government filed a motion on Monday requesting a two-week extension because of the death of the father of prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon

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