ST. GEORGE – A malfunctioning computer system may play a key role in determining the legitimacy of the long questioning and search that led to the arrest of polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs last August.
During a hearing Wednesday, 5th District Judge James L. Shumate gave attorneys until June 25 to submit briefs arguing the legality of the prolonged traffic stop he said would have been over in 15 minutes or less had the dispatch system been working.
At stake is whether items taken from the Cadillac Escalade and statements Jeffs made to the FBI after his arrest can be used at his trial, set to begin Sept. 10.
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Shumate ruled that the trooper made a legitimate stop based on the obscured temporary plate and had valid reasons to feel something suspicious was going on.
What is unclear, the judge said, is whether the trooper could continue to detain the vehicle and question its occupants after being unable to access a computer system that links to a national criminal database.
Jeffs was arrested Aug. 28 during a traffic stop on Interstate 15 north of Las Vegas. Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Eddie Dutchover testified Wedneday that he stopped the 2007 Cadillac Escalade, driven by Jeffs’ brother, Isaac, because its temporary registration tag was partially obscured by a rear plate holder. Naomi Jessop Jeffs, one of Warren’s wives, also was in the vehicle.
Dutchover said several things keyed his suspicions, including the way Isaac Jeffs’ hand shook as he handed over his driver’s license and registration.
The trooper said his suspicion that something was amiss increased when he noted Isaac Jeffs had a Utah driver’s license but the vehicle was registered in West Des Moines, Iowa, and had a temporary license plate out of Colorado.
Warren Jeffs, in the middle seat, refused to look at the trooper as he questioned him, instead staring straight ahead while eating a salad “very fast.” The trooper also said he could see Jeffs’ carotid artery pulsating.
“I said, ‘Why are you so nervous? You’re making me nervous,'” Dutchover recalled in court.
He said Jeffs gave a story that conflicted with his brother’s account of where they had been and where they were headed.
Dutchover, who stopped the Escalade at 9:04 p.m., learned 12 minutes later that a dispatch computer used to check the validity of licenses and registrations was down. He never asked again during the stop, which lasted nearly two hours, whether the system had been restored.
And that may prove key in deciding whether he had the right to continue asking the trio questions and to ask for permission to search their vehicle. That search began about 9:30 p.m., after Dutchover said he asked Isaac Jeffs whether he was transporting drugs or weapons.
The trooper said the driver willingly signed a consent form to allow the search.
The initial search turned up numerous cell phones, letters to “the president” or “WSJ” and two envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills in the lining of a suitcase, Dutchover said.
Despite not finding any narcotics, Dutchover said the “totality” of what he found in the vehicle and the occupants behavior made him feel “something is wrong here.”
By that point, a second trooper who had joined the stop figured out that Jeffs might be the fugitive wanted by the FBI – a search he was familiar with because he had pulled over two individuals with the last name “Jeffs” a month earlier.
“At that time, I tried to ask Warren if his name was ‘Warren Jeffs’ and he wouldn’t respond,” Dutchover said.
In response to a question by Richard Wright, a Nevada lawyer who is participating in Jeffs’ defense, the trooper said he wasn’t sure if he had used the name “Warren Jessop.”
Jeffs finally admitted his identity after an FBI agent arrived on the scene. Wright also pressed Dutchover about whether a functioning computersystem would have quickly let him determine whether Isaac Jeffs’ license and the registration were valid.
Dutchover said yes. But without that information, and given the strange circumstances, he continued to question what was going on.
“They were going to be staying there until you were satisified . . . that they weren’t engaged in some type of unknown criminal activity,” Wright asked.
The trooper said he suspected some crime – drug trafficking, terrorism, credit card fraud. “The indicators were there. I didn’t know what it was – not a crime, but some kind of criminal activity,” said Dutchover.
Dutchover said he didn’t remember whether Isaac Jeffs had made a comment about not liking “people going through my stuff” or whether he suggested that search dogs might be used.
Asked whether the three were free to go after he failed to find drugs in the vehicle, Dutchover said they “could have done whatever they wanted.” A complete search of the vehicle later turned up numerous cell phones, letters and what have been described as religious documents, correspondence, electronic equipment, wigs and sunglasses, numerous cell phones, laptop computers, prepaid debit cards and just over $58,000 in cash.
Jeffs, 51, faces two felony counts of being an accomplice to rape for conducting a religious marriage in 2001 between a 19-year-old man and his 14-year-old cousin, who objected to the arranged union.
He has been incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane since Sept. 5.
On May 24, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson gave the U.S. Attorney’s Office just over a month to return to Jeffs items taken during his arrest that are not needed as evidence in its federal case against the sect leader. Jeffs faces one count of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Benson ordered Jeffs’ attorneys to preserve the material, however, which is being sought by several other parties, among them Bruce R. Wisan, a court-appointed fiduciary overseeing the sect’s property trust. Wisan alleges the material may include information about trust property.