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Gondola pot cases dropped

Christine Metz

Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James dismissed charges for nine of the 10 people cited for smoking marijuana in gondola cars at the Steamboat Ski Area because of concerns about how the search was conducted, court documents show.

On Dec. 8, 10 people were cited at Thunderhead Lodge on suspicion of possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana and/or possessing drug paraphernalia.

Two sheriff’s deputies and three GRAMNET officers were at the top of the gondola checking cars for the odor of marijuana. If they smelled it or saw smoke coming out of a gondola car, they searched the occupants for the drug.

In his motion to dismiss, St. James noted “there exists substantial, significant concerns with the propriety of the search involved in this case. In the interests of justice, the state chooses not to pursue prosecution.”

Court documents show that nine of the 10 people charged had their cases dismissed. Those cited were between the ages of 15 and 26, and all but three were younger than 20.

Those cited had been set to appear in court Tuesday, but the charges were dismissed Jan. 6.

Attorney Kris Hammond, who represented a 20-year-old Steamboat Springs woman cited that day, said the case was dismissed before he could argue about the legality of the search.

“Obviously GRAMNET has lots and lots of taxpayers’ money, maybe they should use it to go to probable-cause school rather than wasting it on illegal searches for a few grams of marijuana and pipes,” he said.

Routt County Sheriff John Warner said that before going to Thunderhead Lodge that day, the deputies had reviewed state statutes and thought the searches were allowable. The Sheriff’s Office had not contacted the DA’s Office before issuing the citations, and subsequently the two offices had different interpretations of the case law relating to the search.

Warner said the deputies had probable cause to search but that questions remained about the skiers’ and snowboarders’ right to privacy.

“It boils down to an expectation of privacy, and did they have the expectation of privacy in a gondola car that they don’t have in a motor vehicle?” Warner said.

The officers viewed gondola cars the same as motor vehicles in conducting the search, Warner said, and the DA’s Office had a different interpretation.

“There are some gray areas,” Warner said.

St. James did not return phone calls about his decision to dismiss the cases, but Hammond offered his opinion of the dismissals.

In a motor vehicle, if a law enforcement officer pulls a driver over and can smell marijuana, there is probable cause to search the vehicle and the people inside it because the passengers are there voluntarily and choose to be in the car with the other occupants, he said.

“That is not true in a gondola car,” he said. “You get in line at the bottom of the lift and end up with who you end up with. One person in a gondola choosing to smoke a joint doesn’t give police probable cause to search every other person in the car.”

He said the same would hold true for a bus or an airplane.

One 15-year-old boy pleaded guilty to a charge of possessing marijuana, and a possession of drug paraphernalia charge was dropped. Court documents stated the boy was riding up the gondola alone and was searched after officers smelled marijuana coming out of the car.

Despite the dismissals, Warner said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to enforce the Steamboat Ski Area’s nonsmoking laws — cigarette or otherwise — on the gondola, if the ski area continues to get complaints. He also noted that signs warning people that smoking is not allowed in the gondola give officers probable cause to search.

“This is not going to stop us from enforcing marijuana laws on the gondola. It is just going to change the way we do it,” Warner said.

The sheriff’s office and the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team conducted the gondola operation Dec. 8 at the request of ski area officials.

Last ski season, the ski area had a record number of complaints about gondola cars smelling like pot smoke, ski area officials said, and they had asked law enforcement officials to help resolve the problem this winter.

Spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen said the ski area had no comment on the case dismissals.

The Sheriff’s Office did a similar operation Nov. 24, the opening day of the ski area, and two citations were given.

The Dec. 8 search occurred on a morning after the ski area received more than 14 inches of new snow, and long lines of mostly locals had formed before the gondola doors opened at 8:20 a.m.

Court documents indicate that while making their way through the gondola line that morning, officers overheard warnings to not smoke pot on the gondola and suspected some lift operators at the bottom had warned skiers and snowboarders about the officers’ presence.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com


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