The Southern Standard, by Will Stewart —
If he’d have taken I-24 instead, 18-year-old Erik Wielgos of Bartlett, Ill., would probably be having the time of his life at the Bonnaroo music festival right now.
As it happened, he missed the festival all together after being given bad directions which took him through Warren County on Highway 55. It was here on Thursday morning that he was stopped for speeding and was ultimately charged with simple possession of marijuana.
“He (the officer) asked if we were going to Bonnaroo,” said Wielgos. “I said yes and he said he knew we had pot. He said if we’d just give it to him he’d let us go with a citation. If not, he said he had a K-9 unit with him and if the dog found it then we’d be taken to jail. I haven’t slept much over the past couple of days because of this. I just want to get it over with.”
Wielgos’ case is not unique. He is one of 24 mostly out-of-state motorists from places like New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Oregon, Wisconsin and Arizona who received simple possession citations from local law officers last week.
These citations were dismissed Friday by General Sessions Judge Larry Ross, who cited doubts of their constitutionality and the appearance of selective enforcement.
“The facts are that 24 cases are cited for possession of drugs, none of which are local. The appearance of this is terrible. It just looks bad,” said Ross. “It’s a no-win situation for the court. I’m not saying this court doesn’t care about drug enforcement, but I am saying it cares about rights and the appearance of rights.”
Allegations regarding the profiling of Bonnaroo participants began last week as the Warren County Sheriff’s Department conducted “high visibility” campaigns on Highway 55 and Highway 70. The purpose of these campaigns, according to Sheriff Jackie Matheny, was not target anyone in particular, but rather to keep the roads safe during a period of increased traffic.
“I don’t understand what some people are so concerned about,” said Matheny, who noted he has received numerous complaints regarding the campaigns.
“We try to keep highly visible during festivals and the Fourth of July and Halloween. State troopers do the same during holidays. What’s the difference? We stopped McMinnville folks too, but 10-to-1 of the people on the road were Bonnaroo people so of course they’re going to make up a higher percentage of stops.”
Matheny continued, “I’m disappointed in the judge for allowing this. I’m disappointed that the integrity of the officers is being questioned, and I’m disappointed in the people who have manipulated the judicial system.”
After receiving complaints from several citizens and subsequently becoming upset at what they saw to be a “terribly unfair” practice, local law firm Galligan and Newman decided to represent, for free, all of those accused.
“The concept and appearance of what happened was wrong and above that it’s unconstitutional,” said attorney Michael Galligan. “If it’s something they (law enforcement) did every other weekend, and if the entire docket wasn’t all out-of-state and out-of-county people, we’d have no complaint. I don’t like us to be unfair. It erodes confidence in the law, and when you do that, you erode peoples’ adherence to the law.”
Asked if Friday’s dismissals would have any effect on future “high visibility” campaigns, Matheny replied, “I hope something like this never happens again, but nothing is going to stop me from doing my job, a job I believe the people of Warren County want me to do.”