Kenneth Coffin, 55, of Seattle, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Erie County Common Pleas Court to charges of complicity to possess marijuana and possession of hashish, while Thomas Whitlow, 31, of Minneapolis, Minn., pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, and Lucas Franz, 33, of Seattle, pleaded guilty to complicity to possess marijuana.
All three were released Wednesday from the Erie County jail, pending their sentencing hearings Oct. 10 in Judge Roger Binette’s courtroom. Franz and Whitlow could both face up to 36 months in prison, while Coffin could face up to nine years. The three were originally charged in December with drug trafficking and drug possession, after an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper stopped their vehicle on the Ohio Turnpike and found 353 pounds of marijuana inside. The charges were later reduced, and the three pleaded guilty to even lesser charges Wednesday.
Coffin’s attorney, Geoffrey Oglesby, said he would have preferred to take the case to trial, but any ensuing court processes — such as appeals, if convicted — would have taken as long as the eventual prison sentence.
Oglesby, however, said he has lingering questions about the Highway Patrol’s decision to stop the men’s pickup that morning. Trooper Christopher Breyer stopped the pickup because it was following too closely behind a semi-trailer, Highway Patrol Maj. Shawn Davis said.
Oglesby said Breyer has three similar busts recently. “Something is off,” Oglesby said. “He is a bit too lucky.” Acting on tips from the Drug Enforcement Agency or other agencies — or citizens who report suspicious activity — troopers will sometimes watch for a specific vehicle suspected of involvement in drug activity, Davis said.
A Reuters story recently revealed the National Security Agency has, for some time, provided the DEA with intelligence information on suspected drug activity. The DEA, in turn, passes the information along to local or state law enforcement agencies. The NSA’s surveillance program, which has swept up phone records of millions of Americans, has come under heavy fire from critics who say it is a violation of civil liberties.
In the case of Whitlow, Franz and Coffin, however, Trooper Breyer was not acting on a prior tip, Davis said. His reason for the traffic stop was related to a driving offense. But the trooper’s reasoning for searching the vehicle is another point of suspicion, Oglesby said.
Breyer said he could smell a strong scent of raw marijuana when he was talking to the men as they sat in the truck. The trooper also said the men would not make eye contact with him, and the driver kept his hands on the wheel — something he referred to as criminal activity in testimony, Oglesby said. Oglesby said he was prepared to present an expert to testify that the marijuana was shrink-wrapped in multiple layers, and also placed in duffle bags, which means there would not have been an odor of marijuana.
Oglesby said there is a recommended sentence of 30 months in prison for Coffin, and he’ll have to serve at least two years of actual incarceration.
Franz was represented by attorney Andrew Schuman, while Whitlow was represented by Jon Rion.