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Durham Police Chided For Marijuana Case

Herb Fellow

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DURHAM - A prosecutor has tossed out marijuana trafficking charges against a Duke University student, prompting criticism from a defense lawyer that police are doing their business backward. Bill Thomas, a lawyer called in to help two Duke students facing drug charges, said he feared police were rushing to arrest first and waiting to conduct their investigations later. "The power to arrest someone is a tremendous power," Thomas said Wednesday. "But with that power goes a tremendous responsibility to conduct a full and complete investigation. You investigate first, and you arrest after the investigation."

The most recent case to draw a rebuke from Thomas involved Eric Halperin, a senior honors student at Duke. Charges against him were dropped early this week.
Police had intercepted a package at a DHL delivery service station with 27 pounds of marijuana addressed to the off-campus fraternity house where Halperin lived.
As part of an undercover operation, an investigator posted a note on the fraternity house door. The note mentioned an attempt to deliver the package, according to court documents, and gave a phone number to call.

Halperin, according to his attorney, called the number. The undercover officer, according to court documents, said the package was addressed to a woman at that address. Halperin, according to Thomas, said no one by that name lived at that address. But the package was delivered Feb. 27. Shortly after that, Halperin was sitting on his couch next to the unopened package when a special police enforcement team rushed in with guns raised. "He was handcuffed at gunpoint, strip-searched, taken to jail and placed under a $25,000 secured bond for a crime he did not commit," Thomas said. "Sadly, this is the third innocent Duke student who has had their good name tarnished for a crime they clearly did not participate in."

Jim Dornfried, the assistant district attorney who dismissed the charges against Halperin, said that he thought police had sufficient cause to levy the charges but evidence obtained after the arrest cast doubt on the case. Dornfried said the State Bureau of Investigation had been called in to look into the evidence -- evidence that could incriminate someone else.

An SBI investigator assigned to the case declined to comment when contacted several weeks ago. The DHL hub, is not in Durham County.

The incident was the third of its kind in the past 11 months in which a Duke student was accused of trafficking drugs contained in a package intercepted from DHL, an express shipper with offices around the world. "Whenever you have the drugs being delivered through a courier these are difficult cases to prove," Dornfried said.

In April 2007, Dornfried dismissed charges against Duke student Ryan Williams Packer after determining there was not enough evidence to proceed with police charges accusing him of trafficking 17 pounds of marijuana.

Thomas represented a female student who was taken to the police station at the same time, but she was not charged. Thomas said he had hoped there would be procedural changes in the police department after the rush to prosecute in the Duke lacrosse case pointed out flaws with investigations. "This case demonstrates without question that there's no change to investigative procedures," Thomas said. "I'm hopeful the new leadership will change that, but I see no indication of that occurring."

Source: News & Observer
Copyright: 2008, News & Observer
Contact: Anne Blythe, Staff Writer, anne.blythe@newsobserver.com
Website: newsobserver.com | Durham police chided for marijuana case
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