By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
A Madison Circuit Court judge ruled this morning that police did not act illegally when they went into a man’s room without a search warrant following a report of a home invasion.
Witmer J. Lopez, 23, had asked the court to throw out all evidence collected when police entered his room, along with other items found in searches of his car and another residence.
Lopez faces felony charges of trafficking in marijuana (more than 5 pounds) and tampering with physical evidence. He also was charged with felony drug possession after police reported finding hydrocodone tablets in his car.
Early in the morning of July 8, 2012, residents of a home in the 600 block of Martin Drive reported to Richmond police that two intruders had come into the house while they were asleep and stolen $200 in cash. Two pairs of sunglasses also were taken from the residents’ vehicles, according to the report.
One of the residents had awakened during the home invasion and chased two men outside, who fled in a Honda Civic that was owned by Lopez, another resident in the Martin Drive home.
When police arrived, the roommates said they did not know where Lopez was and the door was open to his normally locked room, according to testimony from Corporal Jake Atkins during the evidence suppression hearing.
Atkins testified he did a “protective sweep” of the home in case a burglar still remained inside or if Lopez did happen to be in his room, but injured. Atkins said when he opened the door to Lopez’s room all the way, he immediately smelled marijuana.
Atkins shone his flashlight around the room and reported seeing small amounts of marijuana on the floor and in a closet.
At that point, Atkins left and obtained a search warrant for Lopez’s room.
Later that morning while the police were at his house, Lopez drove by in his Honda Civic that the suspects had fled in, and an RPD officer conducted a traffic stop. Lopez received a misdemeanor citation for the marijuana found in his room.
The officer asked if he could search Lopez’s vehicle, but Lopez declined. The officers then towed the car to the police impound lot until a search warrant was obtained the next day.
Later that day, RPD officers were called to an apartment in the 500 block of Hampton Way, according to testimony from RPD Patrolman Daniel Deaton.
Lopez had walked on foot to a home on Hampton Way after the investigators had left his home. Two of his roommates had followed him, and they recognized two of the men at the Hampton Way home as the two burglars from the night before, Deaton testified.
When police arrived and knocked on the door, an officer stationed at the back door reported seeing Lopez trying to hide a large bag of marijuana. Police reported finding several marijuana plants inside the house and equipment for an indoor grow operation.
Judge Jean C. Logue ruled that all the searches done in connection with the case were conducted lawfully, in particular the first one done at Lopez’ home prior to officers obtaining a search warrant.
The officers had a “right and responsibility” to check on Lopez after his home was burglarized, Logue said, adding people would’ve been “shocked” if the officers hadn’t attempted to check on his welfare.
Logue said the officers also had a right to stop Lopez’s vehicle when they saw it go down the road later because it was reasonable to believe the car had been stolen by the burglary suspects.
Lopez, who is represented by Lexington attorney Charles Gore, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 14. He has been out on bond since the day after he was arrested.
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 624-6694.