NOT GUILTY

Stillwater jury clears Guyana man of felony drug distribution charge from case of 70 pounds of pot found during I-90 traffic stop
By: 
Marlo Pronovost
Thursday, August 30, 2018

SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost

Yannick James Van Sluytman testifies during his trial in district court. He was released from jail after being found not guilty by a jury.

SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost

MHP Trooper Barry Kilpela stands guard over two duffel bags containing 70 pounds of marijuana during a break in the district court trial Monday.

A Stillwater County jury cleared a Guyana man of a felony drug charge following a two-day trial that ended Tuesday.

Jurors deliberated for approximately two and a half hours before returning a verdict of not guilty on one felony count of criminal possession of dangerous drugs with the intent to distribute against Yannick James Van Sluytman, a 32-year-old resident of Guyana.

Testimony began Monday afternoon and ended late Tuesday morning. The Stillwater County Attorney’s Office presented testimony from four witnesses — the Montana Highway Patrol trooper and the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation Bureau agent who made the arrest, the Montana crime lab forensic scientist who tested the marijuana and the Stillwater County Sheriff’s deputy who assisted.

Defense attorney Jack Sands presented just two witnesses — Van Sluytman and his younger brother.

Van Sluytman had been in jail since his January 2018 arrest, with bond set at $100,000. After the verdict was read, 22nd Judicial District Judge Blair Jones told him he was free to go.

There is a co-defendant in the case who has also pleaded not guilty to the same charge. Bing Yuan Liang, 46, posted a $25,000 bond the month following his arrest. He is a United States citizen who is currently living on the East Coast, according to Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde. Liang’s bond was considerably lower than Van Sluytman’s due a concern about the possible flight risk of a non-U.S. citizen.

THE CASE

Jan. 16, 2018, Liang and Van Sluytman were in a rented Toyota Avalon travelling eastbound on I-90 when Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Barry Kilpela and DCI Agent Richard Smith observed the car was travelling well below the speed limit, according to court documents.

When the patrol car passed the Toyota, the Toyota veered onto the shoulder of the road, then pulled into the passing lane without using a signal. The trooper pulled over and allowed the Toyota to pass him, at which point he pulled behind it and activated his top lights. One mile later, at mile marker 408, the Toyota stopped, “swerving on to the shoulder several times before stopping,” according to court documents.

Van Sluytman was driving what he said was a rental vehicle and was identified after producing a Guyana passport. The trooper noted seeing oranges and orange peels strewn about the car. Based on his training and experience as a drug interdiction investigator, the trooper knew that oranges are often used to mask the odor of drugs. The trooper also knew that rental cars are often used by drug traffickers, as they are reliable and prevent law enforcement from forfeiting the trafficker’s personal vehicle, according to court documents.

When questioned, Van Sluytman told the trooper he lived in Guyana and had flown to Seattle to visit Liang. Van Sluytman said the pair was on their way to North Dakota to sell soy sauce and Chinese seasonings and that he planned to fly back to Guyana from North Dakota, according to court documents.

Liang told police that he sold beauty products and that the pair was on the way to Chicago.

Based on the conflicting stories, the oranges and the use of a rental car, the trooper requested permission to search the vehicle, which was granted. Found in the trunk were two duffle bags that contained approximately 70 pounds of marijuana, vacuumed-sealed and packaged into one pound packages. Also seized was approximately $1,700 in cash.

THE PROSECUTION

Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde and Deputy County Attorney Amanda Tiernan presented the case as a matter of two experienced drug interdiction law enforcement officers who recognized the signs of trafficking and in fact, found a large quantity of marijuana and cash, and conflicting stories from the two defendants.

According to testimony, Trooper Kilpela has personally seized more than 1.5 metric tons of illegal drugs and $400,000 in cash from criminal forfeiture. He is also an instructor in drug interdiction at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.

Now retired, DCI Agent Richard Smith has made approximately 1,000 felony arrests for drug trafficking activity and on the day of the arrest, was working as the trooper’s partner.

Both officers said that the conflicting stories between Van Sluytman and Liang about their destination, as well as what Liang was selling, were significant to them.

“The stories didn’t make any sense to a reasonable man,” testified Smith.

The dash cam video recording of the entire traffic stop was played for the jury. That recording confirmed the different stories Van Sluytman and Liang told the officers.

Smith also testified that although Liang was the only defendant to claim the drugs were his and Van Sluytman’s, he originally tried to say the drugs belonged only to Van Sluytman.

When Trooper Kilpela told Van Sluytman that drugs had been found in bags in the car, Van Sluytman said “I didn’t know that was in the vehicle,” according to the video.

When Trooper Kilpela asked Van Sluytman if his fingerprints would be found on the bags containing the drugs, Van Sluytman replied no.

In closing arguments, Tiernan told jurors that the state had proven the elements of the crime charged — that Van Sluytman was in “constructive possession” of the drugs, that his bag was located in the truck next to the drugs, that the drug packaging showed it was intended to be distributed and that Van Sluytman’s testimony was different at trial than it had been at the time of the stop. Tiernan also addressed an issue the defense felt was important — that being the fact that Van Sluytman’s cell phone was not seized as evidence. The trooper and DCI agent testified they did not have the technology needed to download information from the phone and the drugs and money were sufficient evidence for them.

“Nothing in that cell phone would have legitimized a discovery of 70 pounds of marijuana,” said Teirnan.

Teirnan also said in closing arguments that

THE DEFENSE

Attorney Jack Sands’ case was primarily that his client had no knowledge that the drugs were in the vehicle and that the prosecution had not presented any evidence to the contrary. Sands also pointed to the co-defendant in the case — Liang — as being the party who needs to be held responsible.

The car had been rented by Liang and it was Liang who first said the drugs belonged Van Sluytman, according to testimony. At no time has Van Sluytman ever claimed the drugs were his.

Sands also criticized law enforcement for not investigating elements that could have cleared his client — such as finger-printing the car and contents and seizing Van Sluytman’s cell phone — “because it was just marijuana.”

“Tell that to Mr. Van Sluytman, who has languished in jail,” Sands told jurors in his closing argument.

Sands case consisted of two witnesses — Van Sluytman and Van Sluytman’s younger brother, who lives in Florida. It was a visit to his brother that brought Van Sluytman to the U.S. while on a break from law school in Guyana.

The younger brother testified that he has never seen or known Van Sluytman to do drugs and that during the two months he spent with him in Florida, never saw any behavior he considered suspicious.

The younger brother also produced a document that reportedly stated Van Sluytman had no criminal record in Guyana.

On the witness stand, Van Sluytman told jurors that he had met Liang in 2015 on the All Nations University campus in Guyana and had taken it on himself to drive Liang to various businesses for his business three days a week. Van Sluytman also helped him find an apartment, as Guyana has a “culture of hospitality.”

The two men had no further contact until 2018 when Van Sluytman called Liang from Florida. During that phone call, Van Sluytman said he learned Liang was sick and agreed to fly to Seattle to visit him. Liang bought and paid for the ticket and Van Sluytman said he originally believed he was flying to Washington, D.C.

Within a few days of arriving in Seattle, the men embarked on a road trip to Chicago. The men stayed in Idaho after the first day in travel and were stopped near Columbus on the second day of travel, according to his testimony.

Regarding the different stories he gave police about the destination, Van Sluytman said it was a matter of confusion on his part. He said he had told police in Montana that the destination was North Dakota “because that was the next state.”

QUESTION OF CRIMINAL RECORD

On the document presented as evidence by Van Sluytman’s younger brother regarding a lack of a criminal history, a sentence was noted that stated wording in effect to criminal possession of dangerous drugs, a second offense.

When presented as evidence, Rohde was able to establish that it was not the original document. She also noted that one page of the document stated it had been generated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and noted the drug offense listed. Rohde did not object to the document being admitted into evidence, but said that perhaps Sands could explain that charge.

That charge was never explained. Shortly after the jury began to deliberate, it sent a note to the judge asking for clarification on that criminal offense listed on the document. Because no further questions or information had been raised during the trial about that note, Jones’ reply to the jury was to “please consider all the evidence received in this case.” Jones rejected a request by Sands for the note to read that Van Sluytman has no criminal record.

The investigators also explained to the jury that finger-printing is rarely done in drug cases and than in the case being tried, getting finger prints off cloth bags is nearly impossible.

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