Citing a warrantless search, an Anderson County judge has dismissed drug and conspiracy charges in a case where police allegedly found 45.1 grams of methamphetamine in a backpack in an Oak Ridge motel room in May.
“I hate to dismiss serious charges,” said Roger Miller, judge of the Anderson County General Sessions Court, Division II, in Oak Ridge. But, he added, “I don’t think the proof would hold up.”
Suggesting that a search warrant should have been obtained, Miller said he is accessible and signs many search warrants.
The two people charged in the case had been William Michael Renfro, 18, of Oak Ridge, and Carlie Alise Wisman, 22, also of Oak Ridge.
Renfro had been charged with manufacturing, selling, delivering, or possessing a schedule II controlled substance (the 45.1 grams of meth), a Class A felony; criminal conspiracy, a Class B felony; manufacturing, selling, delivering, or possessing a schedule IV controlled substance (9.5 grams of marijuana), a Class D felony; and possession of a firearm (a Ruger Security Six .357 revolver with six rounds) during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony, a Class D felony.
All four of those charges were dismissed after a preliminary hearing for Renfro in Anderson County General Sessions Court on Thursday, December 12. During a preliminary hearing, a judge can hear from witnesses, victims, and police officers, and determine whether there is probable cause to send the charges to the Anderson County Grand Jury.
Defense attorney Kevin Angel, who represented Renfro, argued during the preliminary hearing that there had been no probable cause to search the motel room or backpack. The May search was “not a good search,” Angel told Miller, saying the charges should be dismissed.
The Oak Ridge Police Department was called to the motel room at Days Inn on South Illinois Avenue for found property on two days in May, May 7 and May 8, according to testimony during the preliminary hearing.
The first day, May 7, the motel cleaning staff allegedly found drug paraphernalia, and officers who responded allegedly found a small amount of marijuana. But it wasn’t clear if any charges would be filed.
Then, on the second day, May 8, the motel staff allegedly found a black backpack with a gun inside a pouch, and police were called again.
ORPD Officer Adam Fairbanks, who was with a training officer at the time, said police were let into the room by the motel staff on May 8, and they went through the backpack and room after securing the firearm. They found the meth, more marijuana, and rounds with the firearm, Fairbanks testified. There had been a “strong odor of marijuana,” and Fairbanks cited the crime the day before, the “pot” that the police had recovered.
But questioning whether there was probable cause to search the backpack, Angel said that possessing a gun is not illegal in Tennessee. He said police “piggy backed” the second day, May 8, on the pot they found the first day, May 7. Officers had no warrants to search the backpack or motel room on May 8, Angel said.
“We’re dealing with a warrantless search,” he told Miller.
Angel said none of the exceptions that could apply to a warrantless search would apply here, such as a search as part of an arrest, a “hot pursuit,” or when consent is given.
No proof had been presented that Renfro was in the motel room between May 7 and May 8, and there was no proof that the backpack was his, Angel said.
Arrests warrants filed by Fairbanks in May said surveillance camera footage showed Renfro entering the room with the black backpack after getting out of Wisman’s vehicle and leaving the room without the backpack.
But after hearing testimony during the preliminary hearing last month, Miller said all defendants have a presumption of innocence, and the connection between Renfro and the motel room was “sketchy and circumstantial.”
The motel room was rented to Wisman, and the warrants filed by Fairbanks alleged that she and Renfro “worked together,” resulting in the criminal conspiracy charge.
But at the end of the preliminary hearing, Miller said he had not heard any testimony about an alleged conspiracy, and he dismissed those charges as well.
Wisman had been charged with manufacturing, selling, delivering, or possessing a schedule II controlled substance; criminal conspiracy; and possession of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony. The state will not prosecute Wisman for those charges.
It’s not clear if the state, through the Seventh Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, might still try to prosecute the case by taking the charges to the Anderson County Grand Jury. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and that process can take six months or more.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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