BAD AXE (WJRT) (3/15/2018) - A simple traffic stop turned into a controversial marijuana case that eventually cost a Michigan State Police trooper his job and deepened a spat between the Huron County sheriff and prosecutor.
Huron County Sheriff Kelly Hanson's 16-year-old son is at the center of the case.
Hanson said his son was not treated fairly, while the prosecutor defends the handling of the case. A Michigan State Police trooper who made the stop is off the job after allegations surfaced of him offering preferential treatment.
The traffic stop happened in Huron County on June 17 -- a Saturday. The trooper passed a car and noticed the two front seat occupants were not wearing seat belts.
While talking with them, an audio recording of the stop captured a simple question from the trooper.
"Be honest with me, where is the marijuana in this car, because I can smell it coming out of the car," the trooper could be heard saying.
The trooper found seven baggies of marijuana inside a larger bag with the front seat passenger, who is Hanson's son. The trooper eventually realized who he had pulled over.
He removed the marijuana in his car and walked back to his patrol car, where he made a phone call to Hanson. The trooper left a voicemail and Hanson called right back.
"Stopped a car here. Your son was, a couple of other kids in it, no seat belts on, but ah, they are trying to sell marijuana out of the car," the trooper said on the phone to Hanson during the audio recording. "Your son had the bag between his legs and admitted it was his -- and several of bags of marijuana in it."
Then the trooper, a 14-year veteran of the state police, could be heard saying this: "I'm willing to do whatever to make this go away man -- just between me and you."
Hanson said he told the trooper he didn't want it handled that way and he would come to the scene. Hanson showed up and talked with his son at the traffic stop.
The trooper informed Hanson's son that the marijuana would be seized as evidence and that a petition would be sent to juvenile court for a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge.
That petition came to the desk of Prosecutor Tim Rutkowski, who after reading initial police report wanted more information.
"It's clear there was more to it. There was a tape," he said.
After reviewing this tape, Rutkowski and his staff believed that when the trooper asked the teen what he was doing with the marijuana, the 16-year-old said he was selling it.
The audio is difficult to hear, but the trooper later in the recording told Hanson during their phone conversation that the trooper believed the marijuana was for sale.
Based on that, Rutkowski upgraded the misdemeanor charge to a juvenile felony charge of possession with intent to deliver marijuana.
"We charged based on the information that was not only in the police report, but on the tape," Rutkowski said.
He said Hanson's son was treated "no different -- no more lenient, no more harsher -- than anyone else."
But Hanson disagrees. He believes his son was treated more harshly than others would have been.
"There's a bunch of inconvenience that my son has to go through, more so than anyone else that would have been caught in the situation like this," Hanson said.
Hanson said no deal was made between the trooper and himself and he believes the case should be handled as a misdemeanor marijuana possession petition, instead of felony distribution.
The attorney representing Hanson's son asked Rutkowski to recuse himself from the case because Hanson and Rutkowski have had deep disagreements in the past.
Rutkowski refused to remove himself from the case and said he prosecuted at least one other teenager the same way.
"I don't have an issue with the sheriff," he said. "From the standpoint of this feud people talk about, there is no feud."
Hanson pointed out his son had no criminal record before this case.
"They use the term over there at the prosecutor's office, he had to eat a felony, got to eat a felony," he said. "The kid was 16 years old, never been in trouble."
In February, Hanson's son pleaded no contest to the juvenile felony distribution of marijuana charge and sentenced to probation. If he successfully completes probation, the charge will be changed in the court record to misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
Hanson is still upset his son took the plea deal.
"I'm thinking if anybody watches this story, they are going to be thinking these guys are sitting there talking about 7 grams of actual marijuana and the kid being jammed up with a felony," he said.
Rutkowski sees the case another way.
"The only thing I will say: When I see a circumstance, I am going to address it," he said.
A spokesman for the Michigan State Police said the trooper was disciplined for his handling of the investigation, which eventually led to him losing his job. The trooper could not be reached for comment.