Justice with Intent to Distribute: Pensacola man helped through program that takes lawyers to the community
Ron Gaines, 37, relives the afternoon of October 6, 2017, every time he drives by Johnson’s BBQ on North W Street in Pensacola and sees the parking lot where an Escambia County sheriff’s deputy pulled him over.1
“I was arrested at 3:30 that afternoon,” said Gaines, a transition specialist with Project Connect, a program contracted by the Department of Juvenile Justice to provide transitional services for North Florida youth on probation, post-commitment probation, conditional release, or direct discharge who are returning to their home communities.
“I lost my job the same day,” said Gaines, who had just left a client’s home when he was stopped for having an obscured tag, or in other words, a Cincinnati Bengals license plate frame.
“The irony was that the deputy who had run the tag said he was able to see the numbers,” said H. E. “Ed” Ellis, Jr., a Pensacola attorney who first met Gaines October 17 at a Justice on the Block pro bono legal services clinic organized through the Escambia Project, a joint initiative of The Florida Bar Foundation, Legal Services of North Florida, and Pensacola-based nonprofit Pathways for Change.
The deputy’s arrest report stated that upon approaching the car, he immediately detected the odor of marijuana.
“All that, I believe, is just to have a reason to detain somebody,” Ellis said. “There never was, in any way, a smell of marijuana emanating from that vehicle. Th
ere was no marijuana found. There were no drugs found.”
What deputies did find, after searching the entire vehicle, was Gaines’ gym bag in the back seat, which contained a plum, a protein bar, a fiber bar, a shaker bottle for mixing pre-workout whey protein drinks, and a clear plastic bag of an off-white powder. Printed on the drawstring gym bag was: “Escambia County Sheriff’s Office” over an image of a sheriff’s office badge, and underneath the badge: “Join the Fight Against Drugs.”
As shown in the Escambia County sheriff’s deputy’s dashcam video, while handcuffed in the back seat of the cruiser, Gaines told deputies the powder was protein. The deputies — and there were several on the scene by the time the incident was over — field tested the powder, and the test came back with a positive reading for the presence of cocaine. They charged Gaines with possession of cocaine, as well as intent to distribute, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in state prison.2
When Ellis met Gaines at the Justice on the Block event, Gaines had brought with him some legal research he had done on his own, but at that time the documents in the case were limited.
“The only thing I had at the time I met with Mr. Gaines was an arrest report and the traffic citations. I did not have any discovery from the state because he had not been to an arraignment yet,” said Ellis, who was troubled by the basis of the traffic stop — a
n obscured tag — and the application of a statute that, if widely enforced, would ensnare many die-hard sports fans and college boosters.
“I’m violating the law [by] driving my truck,” said Ellis, whose tag is framed by an Ole Miss tag holder. “I thought that Gaines did have a case, and I thought that there were legal grounds to dismiss the case. So, I agreed to work with him.”
Ellis was able to convince the State Attorney’s Office intake attorney to delay the arraignment and send the powder taken into evidence to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) lab for testing prior to formally charging Gaines with a second-degree felony. Normally, the state would not have submitted the evidence to FDLE for testing until much later in the case.
“In the First Judicial Circuit, if there’s a positive test by law enforcement, that’s all they utilize up until the time the case gets going and the state believes there probably will be a trial. So, evidence will not get tested until months after the arrest,” he said.
But thanks to Ellis’ intervention, which involved little more than a phone call to the State Attorney’s Office, Gaines’ case never got that far.
“No criminal charges were ever filed by the state because they filed a ‘no prosecution’ the day of the arraignment,” Ellis said. “The no prosecution stated, ‘The FDLE lab repor
t indicates the submitted evidence was not a controlled substance.’ It is described as an ‘off-white powder.’”
Ellis also was able to get the traffic citations dismissed. In the end there were three, including one for a Bengals window decal in the car’s rear window (obstruction
of the driver’s view), and one for no proof of insurance, even though Gaines had proof of insurance, but couldn’t produce it while handcuffed in the back of the deputy’s cruiser.
who has associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, said two months later that he was still suffering the consequences of what he learned in school is called a “fishing expedition” by law enforcement.
He points out that the deputies initially said they smelled marijuana, which was the justification for searching the vehicle, but they found none.
“Then it went from, ‘He had to have marijuana,’ to now, ‘He had to have cocaine, he just had to,’” Gaines said.
“I go to therapy every week to try and deal with this. I got diagnosed with acute stress disorder, and I’ve been trying to deal with it ever since then,” he said, recalling how he had been feeling up until the moment Ellis stepped up to help him.
“I’m broke, I’m spiritually broke, I’m mentally abused, I’ve been embarrassed, my whole pride, everything about me has just been drained,” Gaines said. “The youth that looked up to me have seen me locked up in jail, their parents have seen me locked up in jail, my co-workers have seen me locked up in jail.”
Beyond that, Gaines is in debt from going a month and a half without a job because his employer fired him the day of his arrest,
calling it a disqualifying offense, and because he had to post $1,000 bond to get out of jail the night of the arrest.
“I had to actually do a GoFundMe account, and by the grace of good people I was able to get $500 from that. My rent was about $600, so it helped me pay my rent, but I maxed out my credit card,” Gaines said.
Ellis would like to see
change going forward.
“What we have in our lives is our names, our characters,” Ellis said. “I just think that law enforcement and our state attorneys need to be more careful and look at the cases because it can ruin lives. We were fortunate here that we had a prosecutor who was able to listen, and he did the right thing.”
Gaines said he’s grateful Ellis recognized injustice when he saw it.
“It meant everything, and Mr. Ellis, he’ll never know how much I thank him,” Gaines said. “I have so many friends from back home where I’m from, and when I posted this stuff on Facebook, there was an overwhelming response from the community. So many people were in an uproar about what happened. So many people just thanked Mr. Ellis, and he doesn’t even know it.”
Gaines is grateful as well to the larger cast of characters, including Ellis’s paralegal Donna Nall, who were at Justice on the Block, which takes pro bono legal services to community centers and churches that are convenient to those in need. Ellis also credits Nall, who not only volunteered her own time, but also made sure the Justice on the Block event was on his schedule.
“I know I wasn’t the only person that they helped that day,” Gaines said.
1 A llie Norton, Pensacola Man Claims False-Positive Drug Field Test Cost Him His Job, WEAR-TV (Oct. 31, 2017), http://weartv.com/news/local/pensacola-man-claims-false-positive-drug-field-test-cost-him-his-job .
NANCY KINNALLY is CEO of Relatable Communications Group, a full-service marketing and public relations agency focused on legal, medical, start-up companies, institutions, and nonprofits. She previously directed communications for The Florida Bar Foundation and was the founding communications director of the Florida State University College of Medicine.