Evidence legality still questioned

After two days of hearings, it remains unclear whether evidence gathered during the arrest of two suspended USF students now facing federal explosives charges can be used in court.

Lawyers for Ahmed Mohamed, who is in the United States on a student visa, and Youssef Megahed, who holds U.S. legal permanent resident status, argued that what were originally thought to be pipe bombs – collected when deputies searched their car – were inadmissible in court.

They claim the Berkeley County Sheriff’s officers, who stopped Mohamed and Megahed in Goose Creek, S.C. on what was said to be a routine traffic stop Aug. 4, 2007, questioned and searched the men because of their nationality, not because of suspicious behavior.

Evidence that is gained without what is called probable cause – especially when an officer is said to investigate an individual because of his race or ethnicity, is typically not allowed in court.

Deputy Andrew Taylor and Corporal Lamar Blakely were caught on video by a camera located in their cruiser making racist remarks like: “He passed freakin’ suicide bomber school quick,” “They’re turning on the bomb right now” and “I don’t like stopping these f—— anyway,” during the arrest, the defense said Tuesday.

Taylor also participated in a conversation that the defense said reflected a pattern of “naked acts of racism and ethnocentricism” that characterized both officers’ behavior during their interaction with Megahed and Mohamed.

Taylor said it was a way that officers cope with high-stress situations.

As Taylor arrived on the arrest scene in a separate cruiser, he could not corroborate Blakely’s testimony that the two defendants were acting suspiciously before they had stopped their vehicle.

Taylor said he became suspicious when he noticed how tightly Megahed was gripping a laptop computer and that Megahed was answering most of the questions, even those directed at the Mohamed, the driver.

He admitted to assuming that the books he saw in the car, which had Arabic writing on them, were copies of the Quran, and eventually associating the possession of this text and the mens’ ethnicity with terrorism.

When asked when the decision was made to search the vehicle, which the defense claims violated the students’ Fourth Amendment rights, Taylor said he was “really only thinking about leaving or going home,” since he was nearing the end of a 12-hour shift.

Steven Kolodji and Troy Noble of Naval Criminal Investigative Services also testified, offering a brief timeline of some events that followed the traffic stop, including the FBI’s interview with Megahed and Mohamed, when consent was obtained to search his laptop and their cell phones.

During final arguments, attorneys James W. Smith III and Lyann Goudie, representing Megahed and Mohamed, respectively, said that Blakely’s credibility, on which rested much of the evidence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that led them to search the vehicle, was irreparably damaged when he made racist remarks about the suspects. They also argued that the officers’ line of questioning belied assumptions about whether or not the two Middle Eastern men belonged in Goose Creek, S.C.

Smith focused on discrediting “inconsistencies” while Goudi said the stop should have lasted only long enough to issue a warning or citation for speeding. Both defense attorneys again questioned why no mention was made during the video of the stop regarding suspected drug trafficking. Blakely had testified this was the reason he asked for consent to search the vehicle.

Asst. U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer said the officers were justified in obtaining consent to search. While few of the individual factors being considered in the stop were cause for suspicion, the combined circumstances painted a very different and suspicious picture, he said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo will rule on the case after reviewing the evidence presented during the trial.