A judge began hearing arguments and testimony Tuesday to determine whether a police officer’s search of two suspended USF students now on trial for federal explosives charges was legal or improperly motivated by race.
The arresting officer, Lamar Blakely, and another deputy present at the stop made several remarks about the defendants’ ethnicity after the deputy observed that Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed were holding copies of the Koran in their laps.
Attorneys James W. Smith III and Lyann Goudie, representing Megahed and Mohamed, respectively, argued that the students’ vehicle was searched without probable cause – therefore illegally – because of their nationality and religion.
Mohamed, an Egyptian national in the United States on a student visa, and Megahed, who is also Egyptian but holds permanent resident status in the U.S., were arrested Aug. 4 in Goose Creek, S.C., after officers found what were originally thought to be pipe bombs in the trunk of their car.
Subsequent tests have suggested the “pipe bombs” may actually have been less-dangerous homemade fireworks.
Megahed’s and Mohamed’s lawyers hope a judge will throw out the search that resulted in the discovery of the homemade fireworks, or “sugar rockets,” and led to the arrests and criminal charges in the first place. Evidence obtained through a search based on race is legally inadmissible in court.
Blakely contends that the remarks were merely “unprofessional” jokes about the suspects, but the students’ attorneys maintain that they clearly indicate a racial bias.
Officers made remarks- caught on a videotape by a camera in their cruiser – throughout the course of the stop, such as “He passed freakin’ suicide bomber school quick,” “They’re turning on the bomb right now,” and “I don’t like stopping these f*ckers anyway,” according to the defense.
Both officers then speculated that the two might intend to blow up structures placed under additional protection in the United States’ recent emphasis homeland security – nearby locks and dams, and a yet-unspecified “base.”
When questioned by assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer, Blakley said the men were exhibiting behavior consistent with that of drug trafficking or other drug-related crimes, which the officer said made up 90 percent of his arrests.
Blakely said there was an unusual amount of suspicious movement while he waited for the men to stop their vehicle and a delay before they stopped, and the driver (Mohamed) was paying an unusual amount of attention to the police car behind him – “to the point where he wasn’t paying attention to the road.”
Blakely, responding to Hoffer, said he saw additional suspicious evidence, including cut cable ties, which often indicate something hidden in or behind the dashboard; half a box of .22 caliber bullets; track phones, which are often used in drug trafficking; and Wal-Mart gift cards, which could have been used to launder money.
When Blakely found Mohamed’s “homemade fireworks and fuses,” the officers called the Charleston County bomb squad to investigate, which led to the eventual arrest, he said.
However, the defense countered that none of this evidence should have come into consideration and maintained that there were no inconsistencies in the students’ stories.
Blakely had made up his mind to search the vehicle long before he could have suspected drug trafficking, Smith said, and pointed out that he admitted his intent on the cruiser-mounted camera. Smith asked Blakely to admit that the two were wearing clothes anyone might wear to the beach and that there is a beach 20 minutes east of Savannah, and wondered why drug trafficking was never mentioned in Blakely’s report, which was filed the day after the stop.
Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, observed Tuesday’s hearing and called some of the information discussed disturbing.
He added that the evidence of racial bias was clear, and wondered, as Blakely admittedly associated the Koran with violence, if the outcome would have been the same had the two men been holding Bibles in their laps.
Blakely is one of five witnesses who will be called during the hearing, which will continue today before U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo.