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Judge dismisses charges in 'sniff test' case

Case hinged on Trooper's ability to smell marijuana from a distance

Posted: October 31, 2013 - 7:22am

ANCHORAGE — A drug case that hinged on the ability of an Alaska State Trooper to smell marijuana from long distances has been thrown out for another reason.

A judge ruled Sept. 20 that hundreds of pot plants and other evidence could not be used in the marijuana manufacturing case because troopers three years ago searched outbuildings using a warrant that only applied to the suspects’ home, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Defense attorney Rex Butler said he and his clients, Trace and Jennifer Thoms, were “elated” to learn that their grand jury indictment had been dismissed.

“This is a family that has children to take care of. The main thing is they won’t be separated from each other,” Butler said. “The reason they fought so long and so hard was they didn’t want somebody else raising their family.”

The case drew attention because of the unusual circumstances that started the investigation.

Trooper Kyle Young testified in the application for a search warrant that he had smelled marijuana from across a swamp as he drove by the Thoms’ home west of Wasilla on a below-freezing night on Feb. 22, 2010. The outbuilding where marijuana was found was more than 450 feet from the road.

He testified that he later learned that their electric bill was far higher than other, similar homes.

The defense attacked the credibility of Young and his skill at detecting marijuana by smelling it. The issue reached the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and judges sent the case back to Alaska, where a judge ruled that Young had testified truthfully.

However, the case was dismissed Sept. 20 because of warrant problems.

Troopers searched buildings not listed in the search warrant. The buildings were more than 100 yards from the Thoms’ home and on a separate electric meter.

Young used a troopers’ warrant application template and did not seek a broader search, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephan Collins said. The wording was open to interpretation, he said.

“The troopers walked over that invisible line,” Collins said. “It’s not a clearly defined line.”

Butler said the family’s legal problems may not be over and they will likely lose their home.

“People will say, ‘You shouldn’t have done this in the first place,’” Butler said. “But Alaska has an insatiable appetite for marijuana.”

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