State Supreme Court overturns Judge Stacy Louser’s ruling in narcotics case

The State Supreme Court has reversed Judge Stacy Louser’s order suppressing narcotics evidence found by Minot police who initiated a traffic stop of Dustin Lark in September 2016.

“The district court erred when it determined probable cause to search ceased upon receiving the inconclusive drug test result without considering the totality of the circumstances in an objective manner,” wrote a unanimous court in its decision. “We reverse the district court’s order granting Lark’s motion to suppress evidence.”

According to court records, Ward County Narcotics Task Force Officer Jason Bambenek observed Lark driving east in the westbound lane near 36th Avenue NE in Minot on Sept. 6, 2016. Minot Police Officer Andy Mehlhoff stopped the vehicle, as Bambenek was traveling in an unmarked vehicle.

Mehlhoff determined that Lark had a suspended Oregon driver’s license and a valid North Dakota license. He ordered Lark to get out of the vehicle because he saw what he believed to be drug paraphernalia and crack cocaine in the front seat.

Mehlhoff handcuffed Lark, read him his rights and searched Lark. The search turned up two cell phones, about $8,400 in cash, and a rolled up dollar bill with a “brown burn mark” on it. Lark was placed in the back of the patrol vehicle. Bambenek then searched Lark’s car while Lark was in the back of Mehlhoff’s patrol vehicle. The search of the car turned up a third cell phone, a letter containing a birth certificate of another person, and various other collectibles. Bambenek told Mehlhoff that the field test for narcotics were inconclusive, about 24 minutes into the stop. Lark remained in custody while Mehlhoff worked on the citation and Bambenek continued searching the vehicle. About 42 minutes into the stop, Mehlhoff issued Lark a driving under suspension citation and told Lark that he would be free to leave if police didn’t find anything else. About 51 minutes into the stop, Bambenek located Suboxene in the headliner by the driver’s seat in Lark’s vehicle. Lark was then arrested for unlawful possession of a schedule III drug with intent to deliver.

Lark’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress evidence and the state opposed the motion. Louser granted the motion to suppress and the Ward County State’s Attorney’s Office appealed.

The Supreme Court agreed that the defense is right that the length of the traffic stop was problematic, but said the officers still had probable cause to search the vehicle even after the first field test turned up inconclusive evidence of narcotics. Bambenek saw in plain view what he judged to be drug paraphernalia and crack cocaine.

– Andrea Johnson