During a probable cause hearing in the Cobb County magistrate courtroom of Judge Gerald Moore Tuesday, Justin Harper, 32, of Baxley, Georgia, was bound over to Superior Court for trial on suspicion of possession of methamphetamine and marijuana.
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The VIPER unit and the methamphetamine possession arrest
The arrest was made during operations by the Cobb County Police Department’s VIPER unit around the intersection of South Cobb Drive and Highland Park. VIPER stands for Violent Incident Prevention and Early Response, and the unit is the part of the Special Operations Division that attempts to reduce violent street crimes in high-crime areas. The intersection they were patrolling has seen an increase in armed robberies, and according to testimony by the arresting officer, at least one recent homicide. The area is also near the boundaries of Cobb County Police Department precincts 2 and 3, and the Smyrna Police Department.
The Officer’s Testimony
Officer C.J. Thompson of the Cobb County Police Department VIPER unit gave the following testimony:
Because of a rise in street-level violent crime near the intersection of South Cobb Drive and Highlands Parkway, the VIPER unit was assigned to patrol the area. Thompson and his partner Officer M.L. Walker were in an unmarked vehicle, so when they noticed a vehicle traveling with a non-working tail light, they called for a marked patrol car to make the stop. Officers B.R. Scurr and A.C. Bates pulled the car over at the intersection of Oakdale and Buckner roads. While Scurr talked to the driver, Thompson noticed that a back-seat passenger was acting nervous and sweating. He asked the passenger to get out of the vehicle, and asked permission to frisk, The passenger, Justin Harper, agreed, and while placing Harper’s hands behind his back to frisk, Thompson noticed that Harper had his fist clenched around a plastic bag. The bag contained suspected methamphetamine, and a further search of the vehicle found suspected marijuana. Harper was then arrested on suspicion of possession of methamphetamine, a felony, and marijuana, a misdemeanor. The driver and another passenger were allowed to leave the scene.
The arguments and decision
During the probable cause hearing, Harper’s attorney, Brent Sherota, asked Thompson if officers in the Cobb police department routinely use stops for traffic violations to make arrests on more serious charges. Thompson said they do. Thompson, Assistant District Attorney Marc Cella, and Judge Moore all said the practice often results in arrests for serious crimes.
Sherota, citing several court decisions involving vehicle stops, frisks and searches, argued that the case should not be bound over because nervousness on the part of a person detained wasn’t sufficient cause to ask permission to search and that people stopped for traffic violations should be released from the scene as soon as traffic citations were issued.
Moore said that while Sherota could make that case later in the judicial process, there was sufficient probable cause to send the case on to Superior Court for trial. He set bond at $6,000.