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Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt stands on the courthouse steps in Catoosa County in 2004.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — The man told a deputy to look inside the McDonald's bag in the car. There, he promised, police would find about 2 1/2 pounds of methamphetamine — a fresh shipment from Atlanta to Catoosa County.

But last week, all that evidence slipped away from police and prosecutors.

After hearing a motion to suppress the find, Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. ruled a Catoosa County deputy had no reason to pull over Jesus Humberto Lopez-Deanda in a traffic stop in October 2014.

Because the deputy had no reason to stop Lopez-Deanda, he also had no reason to search the car or find the drugs — "fruit of the poisonous tree," lawyers call the problem.

Last Monday Lopez-Deanda, 28, walked out of the Catoosa County Jail, where he had been held on a $150,000 bond since his arrest. His attorney, Homer Dean Phillips, said the prosecution has no evidence left in the case, though Assistant District Attorney Matthew Brown filed a notice of appeal Tuesday.

Phillips said the case imploded because the investigators acted on information from a confidential informant, one whom prosecutors refused to identify even though Detective Jason Sullivan said at a pretrial hearing the tip came from the DEA.

Because prosecutors would not name the informant, they needed another reason for stopping Lopez-Deanda's car.

At a March 16 hearing, Brown steered away from talking about the tipster. Instead, he said Catoosa County Deputy Tyler Morton saw the car had a dark-tinted license plate cover, a violation of Georgia law.

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Storm, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, is the newest deputy to the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office. She lives with her handler, fellow officer Deputy Tyler Morton.

Phillips argued the license plate tag was actually clear, giving police no reason to stop Lopez-Deanda or search the car. Van Pelt agreed. He said prosecutors didn't present enough evidence to prove the license plate cover was out of compliance, and that Morton didn't keep the cover as evidence after the arrest.

"Deputy Morton made the traffic stop in order to search for contraband," Van Pelt's ruling stated. "However, the state failed to present any evidence as to why Deputy Morton might imagine that the vehicle contained contraband."

Asked for comment on the ruling, Brown's office referred the Times Free Press to District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, who did not return a call for this article.

But Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk said Thursday he had spoken with Franklin about the ruling.

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Catoosa County (Ga) Sheriff Gary Sisk makes a statement at the Sheriff's Department in this 2014 file photo.

"We feel there was probable cause for the traffic stop," Sisk wrote in an email, "but Judge Van Pelt did not see it that way. I respect his decision. I was not at the hearing so I can't say whether it was or was not presented well enough. We win a lot of cases but unfortunately we don't win them all."

***

It was Oct. 14, 2014, when a Catoosa sheriff's official radioed patrol deputies to look out for a 2009 blue Nissan Altima with Lopez-Deanda driving.

At the Ingles Market parking lot off Alabama Highway, Morton saw the car drive past. He followed for about one block before pulling Lopez-Deanda over at the Auto Zone. Morton said he noticed the license plate cover was tinted, violating the law.

Lopez-Deanda's attorney later argued that couldn't be the case: Morton radioed in that he had nabbed the car, and he identified it by its license plate number.

"All [the sheriff's office] had to do was follow my client a little bit farther and find a legitimate reason to perform a traffic stop," Phillips told the Times Free Press on Thursday.

" But no, they were looking for a reason to stop him. And I think the officer in this case got a little too excited that he was going to make a big bust."

Within minutes, three more officers arrived finding Lopez-Deanda inside with Mitchell Mary Cordova, the owner of the car.

Testifying later about why he wanted to search the car for drugs, Morton said his guard immediately went up because Lopez-Deanda would not make eye contact with him.

But during a hearing last month, Morton admitted many drivers he pulls over don't look him in the eyes. Police stops make people nervous. Morton said Lopez-Deanda's demeanor didn't necessarily make him suspicious.

"I would call it more of a indicator, I guess," he said, according to a hearing transcript.

Morton asked Cordova to get out of the car. He asked her three times if he could search the car, and she eventually agreed. He asked Lopez-Deanda to get out of the driver's seat, and that's when Lopez-Deanda told him where to find drugs.

Lopez-Deanda was charged with trafficking in methamphetamine, possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, driving without a license and replication of a Georgia tag. Cordova was charged with trafficking and possession.

Van Pelt's order applied to both cases.

***

The irony of the whole thing is that Lopez-Deanda already had pleaded guilty to the drug charges in September, but then withdrew the plea.

Phillips said his client faced 25-30 years in prison, but they believed he might get a reduced sentence. He said Lopez-Deanda promised to cooperate with officers, helping them make more arrests.

Lopez-Deanda changed his mind. Phillips wrote in a court filing that, "the state of Georgia has yet to honor its end of the plea agreement."

He said investigators did not seem interested in talking to his client after the plea deal. He wondered if prosecutors would ever reduce his sentence.

"We got two months into this," Phillips said Thursday. "Nobody is coming for interviews [with Lopez-Deanda]. Nobody is trying to track down criminals. We were like, 'All right. Let's prepare for a trial.'"

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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