Judge tosses pot case against jail guards

Michael Frederick, Todd VanDoorne
Left to right: Mug shots of Mike Frederick and Todd VanDoorne from the Kent County Correctional Facility. (March 21, 2014)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The case against two corrections officers who were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana-infused butter has been thrown out by a Kent County judge.

But the prosecutor has said he will continue to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It has been three and a half years since Kent County drug enforcement police showed up at the homes of four fellow officers. Since then, the case has made its way through every level of court in the state.

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Leiber ruled Tuesday that the case cannot move forward because the evidence obtained during a so-called knock-and-talk interrogation cannot be used.

Sgt. Tim Bernhardt and officers Brian Tennant, Mike Frederick and Todd VanDoorne were all fired after their arrests in March 2014. Bernhardt and Tennant both pleaded guilty to maintaining a drug house. Tennant was sentenced to probation. Bernhardt took his own life before sentencing.

Frederick and VanDoorne appealed, saying that police showing up to their homes in the middle of the night was not constitutional.

“They don’t come at 4 in the morning and wake you up and bang on the door for two to five minutes,” said Bruce Block, VanDoorne’s attorney.

The Michigan Court of Appeals sided with police, saying the tactics used were legitimate. But in June, the Michigan Supreme Court decided unanimously that the late-night, warrantless questioning of the suspects violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that investigators who showed up at the houses were, in fact, trespassing.

“This will be applied across the state, so you will not have 3 a.m. police knocks at the door without a warrant,” Block said.

The case was sent back to the 17th Circuit Court for the judge to decide if the evidence could be separated from the constitutional violation and allowed in court.

“The evidence they got is called ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ in legal terms. The ‘poisonous tree’ is the Fourth Amendment violation,” Block said. “Did that apple fall far enough away from the taint?”

On Tuesday, the judge found that the evidence could not be used.

“The prosecutor had asked them to do that because they said without the evidence from this search, we don’t have any evidence that we can go to trial on,” Block said.

Block said in the meantime, his client will be seeking damages in the way of wages and benefits lost as a result of the firing, which was based on the idea that he violated the law while employed as a corrections officer — a violation that, for now, does not exist.

Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said the case will be appealed and his office is prepared to take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

Block said he is ready.

“I will see this case through until the very end of day, until the very last gasp,” he said.