MI Supreme Court: Officers’ rights violated in marijuana arrest

Tim Bernhardt (upper left), Mike Frederick (upper right), Todd VanDoorne (lower left), Brian Tennant (lower right)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Supreme Court says Kent County law enforcement violated the Constitution when they went after members of their own department for possessing marijuana-infused butter.

Now, the case will have to go back to court to determine whether the entire case against two Kent County corrections officers will stand.

In March 2014, Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma told 24 Hour News 8 that four officers had been arrested after it was discovered they had possession of various amounts of marijuana butter. It was clear from the beginning that the officers were going to face the full force of the law.

“It’s certainly disappointing and I’m certainly dismayed that officers would be involved in this type of activity,” Stelma said in 2014. “I think it’s disappointing and I’m dismayed that it really tarnishes, blemishes the badge for anyone who wears a badge.”

The four corrections officers — Sgt. Tim Bernhardt, and officers Brian Tennant, Mike Frederick and Todd VanDoorne — were fired after being charged in 2014.

Bernhardt and Tennant pleaded guilty to maintaining a drug house, but Bernhardt died just weeks before he was to be sentenced. Tennant received probation. But the remaining officers appealed saying that that the way police handled the investigation violated their rights.

Police did not get a warrant, but instead showed up at the homes in the predawn hours for a so-called “knock and talk,” where police show up at a house and simply ask for consent to come in and interview someone.

VanDoorne’s attorney Bruce Block has argued from the get-go that the late night, warrantless questioning of the officers violated their constitutional rights.

“If a Girl Scout can’t come to your house and sell cookies at that hour, the police can’t either because they’re bound by the same social norms,” Block said. “Frankly, I think it affects every single person in this state.”

The court opinion says the unreasonable hour clearly violated the suspects’ rights.

“We hold that the police were trespassing,” the unanimous opinion states.

“The Supreme Court of Michigan has not ruled on ‘knock and talks,’ this is the first time they’ve ruled on it,” Block said. “The ‘knock and talk’ procedure is becoming more common, more common, much, much more common than the traditional ways of gaining information. Most people, I think, don’t realize they can say no.”

Block says this is about more than just his client.

“This was an exceptional day for the Fourth Amendment, something that is near and dear to my heart,” Block said. “This is not something that happen in the United States of America.”

As for the fired officers: “As far as his job, I’m not entirely convinced he couldn’t get his job back,” Block said.

Now the case goes back to the Kent County Circuit Court where it began years ago. Judge Dennis Leiber will have to determine if there is any other way the evidence against the officers could be admitted.

24 Hour News 8 reached out to the sheriff’s department today for comment, but have not heard back yet as Saturday night.