Beans mistaken for dope cost four people their freedom

0
7825
Some of the packages containing dried bean powder that was misidentified as heroin in April, leading to the arrests of four people on drug trafficking charges that had to be dropped later. (Source: Knoxville Police Department)

It looked like a perfect drug bust. 

A routine traffic stop with suspicious occupants in the car? Check. 

Multiple types of probable cause? Check. 

Nearly $10,000 in multiple bundles secured by rubber bands? Check. 

Six plastic bags containing more than 1,250 grams of brown powder that looked like heroin? Check. 

Faced with all that evidence, Knoxville Police Department officers arrested two married couples from Guatemala on charges of heroin trafficking on April 23.

After spending two weeks behind bars, however, all criminal charges against the two men and their wives were dropped after authorities learned there was actually no heroin in their vehicle. 

In fact, the brown powder had turned out to be nothing more than crushed, dried beans. 

The women have since been freed from jail, authorities are preparing to refund their money, and KPD officials have made it clear they want to do everything they can to make things right.

But the two men have disappeared into the bowels of the federal prison system due to a controversial agreement between the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). No one seems able to say when they will be freed — or even if they will ever see their families in the United States again — as the question of their innocence is legally irrelevant under immigration law.

According to KPD and the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, the case is an example of the criminal justice system working as it should. They point out the police officers followed all the rules and — when it became clear that the purported heroin was actually bean powder — they acted swiftly to have the charges dropped.

Unsurprisingly, critics believe the case shows that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed and allows grotesque Constitutional violations to occur on a routine basis. 

Following too closely leads to arrests 

The unfortunate saga began a few minutes before 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 22, on Interstate 40 in West Knoxville, according to arrests warrants filed in Knox County General Sessions Court. 

KPD Officer Andrew Cloyd was going westbound between I-640 and Papermill Drive when he spotted a maroon Kia Forte with Florida tags. The Kia was “following too closely to a gray SUV in front of it,” wrote Cloyd in the warrants he later issued for the vehicle’s occupants.

Legally, the officer’s opinion that the Kia was too close to another vehicle was all the reason that Cloyd needed to pull the car over. It turned out there were four people inside the Kia, which was driven by 31-year-old Vincente Dominguez, according to court records. 

The passengers were identified as Dominguez’s wife, Elena Dominguez, 27, as well as 30-year-old Claudia Escardna and Pedro Cortez, 34, who were also married. 

Dominguez handed Cloyd a Guatemalan ID but had no driver’s license, prompting the officer to have him step outside the car.  Dominguez allegedly provided conflicting stories about where the carload full of Hispanic men and women were going and why before giving Cloyd permission to search the vehicle. 

Vincente Dominguez, who was the driver of a vehicle pulled over in April for following another vehicle too closely. The traffic stop led to Dominguez and his three passengers going to jail for heroin trafficking when the officers mistook several bags of bean powder for dope. (Source: Knox County Sheriff’s Office)

Cloyd was soon joined by two other officers: Anthony Bradley and K-9 Officer Richard Wallace.  

The three officers soon began turning up items that both aroused their suspicions and provided — in the legalese used in courtrooms across the country — numerous sources of “probable cause” for them to believe that the carload of people before them were criminals, records show.

Wallace’s canine partner “alerted” to the presence of narcotics. The officers found $5,575 in cash that was wrapped in rubber bands in a bag belonging to Dominguez’s wife. Then, in a purse belonging to Escardna, they found another $4,500 in multiple bundles of twenty-dollar bills that were also “rubber banded.”

“A search of the vehicle located multiple deodorizing agents and air fresheners throughout the interior cabin of the car, the trunk, and inside luggage which is consistent of masking agents used to cover up the smell of narcotics,” wrote Cloyd.

“Inside the trunk was a large brown bag which contained a black plastic bag, odor masking agents, and two cell phones as well as a green bag which contained multiple clear plastic baggies filled with a brown powdery substance believed to be heroin,” he alleged.

Specifically, there were “six clear bags” filled with 1,253 grams of a “brown powdery substance consistent with heroin,” the warrant states.

It’s important to note that the officers weren’t allowed to field test the suspected heroin due to fears that it might contain fentanyl, an extremely potent narcotic that many law enforcement experts believe may pose a danger to first responders. 

Instead, a specially trained drug investigator came to the scene and tried to analyze the powder with an electronic drug-detecting device, but the machine gave an inconclusive result, records show.

Despite the inconclusive reading from the electronic drug-sniffer, the officers concluded they had more than enough probable cause to arrest all four of the Kia’s occupants on heroin trafficking charges. They also seized the vehicle and all its contents, including the cash. 

Elena Dominguez


Claudia Escardna
Pedro Cortez

For the next 13 days, the four suspects would be prisoners in the Knox County jail system.

As criminal defendants, they each were appointed a lawyer to represent them through the court system. When Elena Dominguez was assigned to veteran defense attorney Mike Whalen, she told him the bags in the trunk had contained only “frijoles,” which is the Spanish word for “beans.”

Whalen then notified prosecutors from the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, who in turn asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to expedite testing of the suspicious brown powder.

The testing soon revealed that Dominguez had told the truth — the bags were full of dried, powdered beans instead of deadly narcotics.

Prosecutors, with the full support of KPD, dropped all the charges against the group on May 6, court records show.

“We asked the TBI lab to rush the testing of what KPD seized and dismissed the case as soon as the lab confirmed it was not heroin.  Our obligation as prosecutors is to seek the truth.  Our duty to dismiss charges to protect the innocent is as important as our duty to pursue charges against the guilty,” said DA spokesperson Sean McDermott.

A federal question

The two women were quickly released from jail and allowed to go on their way. But when it came time to release their husbands, they learned the two men had been transferred to federal custody under a controversial federal program that targets undocumented immigrants. 

As a result, even though Vincente Dominguez and Pedro Cortez are no longer accused of breaking the law in Knox County, it remains uncertain when or how they might leave the federal detention system.

On May 10 — four days after the charges against them were dismissed — Dominguez and Reyes were turned over to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the 287g Program, which allows local police agencies to collaborate with the federal government to enforce immigration laws. 

KPD has never been a participant in the 287g Program, but KPD doesn’t operate any jails in  Knox County. In Knox County, every person who is arrested is booked into a correctional facility owned and operated solely by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, regardless of which police agency arrests them.  

Unlike KPD, which falls under the authority of left-of-center Mayor Indya Kincannon, the Sheriff’s Office answers to only one authority, Sheriff Tom Spangler, a Republican and enthusiastic participant in the 287g Program. His department has repeatedly come under fire from critics who contend that most of the people targeted by the program don’t pose a threat to the community, but Spangler has never budged in his support for the program and has instead promised to renew it indefinitely.

In the case of Dominguez and Cortez, their fates were sealed from the moment they were booked into Knox County’s jail and therefore placed into KCSO custody. The two men apparently couldn’t prove they were either citizens or had immigrated legally into the U.S., which meant they became legitimate ICE targets regardless of their guilt or innocence of the charges they were accused of. 

“Once they were arrested and not able to provide proof of their identity, it is then that ICE steps in,” explained KCSO Kimberly Glenn. “If they were found to be here illegally, ICE has jurisdiction over that. Therefore, there is nothing the Sheriff’s Office can do at that point.  We are also not informed on whether or not the individual(s) are found to have other outstanding charges in any other state or country. That would be a federal question.”

Hard Knox Wire contacted the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Knoxville, but they referred all questions to immigration authorities. ICE officials, in turn, couldn’t be reached for comment about this story or to provide information about the men’s whereabouts.

Officials haven’t said why the men weren’t released from custody as soon as the charges against them were dismissed.

It also wasn’t clear why ICE targeted the two men but not their wives.

“Unfortunate” is probably not a strong enough word

While KPD officials hardly consider the bust to be one of their department’s proudest moments, they also take pains to point out that every step the officers took was 100 percent legal and consistent with not only the policies of KPD but also with those of police departments across the country. 

“It’s really an unfortunate situation but, as we’ve said before, it’s a hard balancing act,” said KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. “Actually, ‘unfortunate’ is probably not a strong enough word. We support our officers who are doing drug interdiction work, but we also support the dismissal of these charges.”

KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Erland ticked off the “multiple layers of probable cause” the officers had to make the arrests, from the bundled-up cash to the “deodorizers” and the fact that a drug dog “alerted” at the scene. 

“There was certainly no malicious intent,” he continued. “The officers acted in good faith… They were acting on the information that they had.”

He paused, then added: “It was complicated. I hope people don’t miss the fact that the officers were put in a predicament there and had to make a choice …. That’s how drugs are packaged, there were large amounts of cash…That’s the totality of facts that our officers had.”

According to Erland, the case was an example of the criminal justice system working as it’s supposed to. After all, the criminal charges were dismissed soon after they were filed because both the police and prosecutors agreed to have the testing speeded up.

“We got expedited lab results and it turned out it wasn’t heroin, but it was reasonable for our officers to believe there was probable cause,” he said.

He stressed that KPD has nothing to do with the 287g Program and there was nothing they could do for the men once ICE had targeted them as allegedly undocumented immigrants, even once their charges were dropped.

“We wouldn’t arrest somebody for being an illegal immigrant,” he added.

When asked if there was anything the DA’s Office could do to possibly intervene on the men’s behalf, McDermott replied: “The State has no authority over federal immigration proceedings.”

“She lost her husband over some beans”

Elena Dominguez and Claudia Escardna couldn’t be reached for comment, and numerous attempts to interview most of the defense attorneys who were involved in the case were unsuccessful. 

The one exception was lawyer Mike Whalen, who represented Elena Dominguez during her two-week incarceration.

Mike Whalen

To call Whalen “outraged” at how the case unfolded would be an understatement of grandiose proportions.  

“Of course they say the system worked,” Whalen said. “It worked out okay for the cops, they’ll face no repercussions. But she sure as hell has. She lost her husband over some beans.”

As far as Whalen is concerned, the entire case was a disaster from the beginning and an abject lesson in why the Fourth Amendment was included in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, he said, it shows how easy it is for the government to ignore the freedoms enumerated in the nation’s governing document. 

“The cops decided what they had based on what they wanted to see, and when they made the decision to arrest it didn’t matter what the testing showed or didn’t show, they were going to move forward,” he said. “Then they say, ‘Sorry we screwed up and put you in jail, got two people wrongfully deported, stole $10,000 and a car … This is what the Fourth Amendment was instituted to protect against.”

According to Whalen, the two women went to Atlanta, Ga., to stay with some relatives after they were freed. His said his client is “in shock” from the whole experience and still awaiting the return of her money… and her spouse.

“He’s gone. That’s all we know,” Whalen said. “I assume he’s going to Louisiana, that’s where they usually end up eventually, but it takes weeks and weeks. In the meantime, he doesn’t have any money on his account to make any phone calls, that’s for sure — they stole that.”

Because Dominguez and Escardna couldn’t be reached for comment it wasn’t known if they planned to sue over their ordeal.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on June 13, 2022.