N LAKES — When Pompton
Lakes police seized Darren Richardson’s car on a rainy September
afternoon, they told him it was headed for an impound lot. When they
returned it three weeks later, he says, the 2004 BMW belonged in a junk
The instrument cluster and leather dashboard were gone. The
caramel-colored seats were torn up. The gear shift was ripped out and
stray wires hung limp everywhere. Geico, Richardson’s insurance company
estimated the damage at $12,636.42 — more than he paid for the car — and
declared the vehicle a "total loss."
According to police reports, the damage to the black BMW 325i came in
the aftermath of a traffic stop during which officers detected a
"strong odor of raw marijuana" inside the vehicle. Searching for a cache
of drugs, members of three different police agencies and a detective
from a federal drug task force spent two days tearing the car apart, the
So what did police find after their $12,000 search?
The incident has led to an internal affairs investigation by the
Pompton Lakes Police Department, opened the door for litigation that
could cost local taxpayers and left experts wondering whether the
department wasted resources in pursuit of what many see as a minor
"The root of these problems, with the drug laws, is sometimes they
(police departments) can’t distinguish between the Medellin cartel and
somebody smoking a spliff," said Eugene O’Donnel, a former police
officer and assistant district attorney who teaches at the John Jay
College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
Richardson, 28, of the Haskell section of Wanaque, filed a notice of
claim against the department last week, seeking damages for false arrest
and malicious prosecution. He also said Geico may sue the department to
recoup the cost of the claim it has already paid to Richardson.
If that happens, Pompton Lakes could be forced to repay the insurance company.
"Geico would have a potential cause of action against the police
department for damaging the car, provided (Richardson) would be legally
entitled to recover the money from the police department," said William
Stewart, a veteran claims adjuster and president of Claims Training
Services. "They stand in Richardson’s shoes."
Courtesy of Darren RichardsonThe gear shift of Darren Richardson's BMW.
The ordeal began Sept. 23 when Lt. Moises Agosto stopped Richardson
after he nearly caused a traffic accident at Wanaque and Colfax avenues,
according to police reports. Richardson — who served two years in
prison for a drug charge and admits he "doesn’t trust cops" — began
arguing with Agosto, the reports said.
"The way they were acting, their whole demeanor, and the way I was
antagonizing them, I knew they were going to mess with me," Richardson
According to the police reports, Agosto smelled marijuana coming from
the vehicle. Moments later, Richardson and his passenger got out of the
car and continued arguing with Agosto, but found themselves in
handcufffs by the end of the dispute, according to the police reports.
From inside Agosto’s cruiser, Richardson watched a drug-sniffing dog
scratch at the BMW’s trunk, indicating the presence of narcotics,
according to the report. Police obtained a search warrant and
Richardson’s car was impounded, the reports said.
Four days later, at an impound lot, police conducted another search
of the vehicle, according to police reports. A second dog was used, but
this canine scratched at the dashboard, not the trunk, the reports said.
Unable to find the source of the drug scent, police called in a "trap
expert" to see if marijuana was hidden in a secret compartment inside
the vehicle. Nothing was found. With the car now partially disassembled
and unable to be driven, Pompton Lakes police contacted New York City
Detective Ellen Friedman, an expert in concealed drug compartments who
is part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, the reports
On Sept. 28, Friedman searched the car and found nothing, but told
police that at one time it may have been used as a drug transport in the
past, according to the reports. Richardson denied that allegation.
In the end, the searches yielded no drugs, but resulted in more than
$12,600 in damage to Richardson’s car, according to an itemized
Geico did not respond to requests for comment.
A police spokesman said the department offered to pay Richardson before he submitted the insurance claim.
"The (department) agreed to pay the damages," Detective Sgt. William
Jernstedt said. "Richardson said he was going to deal with his insurance
company, so when the insurance company totaled it, it became an
Courtesy of Darren RichardsonAn exterior view of Darren Richardson's car after authorities pried it apart looking for drugs.
Jernstedt declined further comment, citing the investigation.
Richardson was initially charged with evidence tampering and
resisting arrest, while his passenger was charged with making
terroristic threats against police. Both charges were filed after the
drug allegations were made, according to the police reports, and all
charges against Richardson and his friend have been downgraded to "petty
disorderly persons offenses," that will be heard in municipal court,
While police stayed within the bounds of the search warrant, experts said, the search appears to have been excessive.
"They went way beyond the scope of this," said Jeffrey Gold, a
criminal defense attorney who taught search and seizure courses at the
Burlington County Police Academy. "Once they got into it, they started
tearing the car apart. They made it worse, in the hopes that they would
make it better by striking gold."
Civil rights advocates said the case illustrates how many police agencies waste resources in pursuit of marijuana offenders.
"This is a great illustration of the costs of this kind of
enforcement, which yielded nothing for public safety," said Deborah
Jacobs, executive director of the state ACLU. "All those resources went
for something that most Americans don’t even think should be a crime."
For his part, Richardson said he can’t believe it cost $12,000 to charge him with a disorderly persons offense.
"It was overkill," he said. "It’s crazy
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