State police infringed on Pittsburgh man's rights in drug search, lawsuit claims

Section of turnpike yields large drug seizuresSome of the largest drug seizures in Westmoreland County have occurred along a section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The stretch between Bedford, where the toll road intersects with Interstate 99 and Route 220,...

State police infringed on Pittsburgh man's rights in drug search, lawsuit claims

Section of turnpike yields large drug seizures

Some of the largest drug seizures in Westmoreland County have occurred along a section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The stretch between Bedford, where the toll road intersects with Interstate 99 and Route 220, through Somerset County and into New Stanton in Westmoreland has long been considered a drug mainline.

New Stanton bills itself as the “Highway Hub of Western Pennsylvania” because motorists can connect to the turnpike or Interstate 70 and routes 66, 119 and 819.

• In 2005, state police seized $1 million worth of cocaine from a car driven by Erik Ramos, then 21, of Philadelphia after a traffic stop near the turnpike on Interstate 70 near New Stanton. Police found 28 pounds of the drug in hidden compartments in the car.

Ramos pleaded guilty and is serving a four-to-10-year sentence for manufacturing, delivery and possession of a controlled substance.

• In July 2015, Trooper Justin Coda arrested Candice Alexander, 30, of Penn Hills after a traffic stop on the turnpike in Mt. Pleasant Township that netted 2,000 bricks of heroin in a hidden compartment in the GMC Tahoe she allegedly was driving. It was one of the largest drug seizures in county history.

Alexander is awaiting trial on possession and possession with intent to deliver charges.

• On Aug. 29, troopers confiscated more than two pounds of raw heroin along the turnpike in Mt. Pleasant Township, and Coda arrested Angelo Jevon Everett, 33. Coda alleges Everett was driving west at 1:59 a.m. when troopers stopped his car for a “tinted window” violation. Coda said the car had an odor of marijuana when he pulled it over about 13 miles east of the New Stanton interchange, according to the criminal complaint. Everett agreed to a search of the car, Coda said.

He is awaiting trial on multiple drug charges.

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Updated 11 minutes ago

A Pittsburgh man who was pulled over along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset last year and detained for more than three hours as state troopers scoured his car for drugs alleges in a federal lawsuit that turnpike patrols unlawfully target black drivers for drug searches.

Ricky Hardy, 31, claims in a civil lawsuit filed against the Pennsylvania State Police in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh that troopers violated his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and subjected him to false imprisonment and unlawful seizure during the Jan. 6, 2016, traffic stop along the eastbound lanes near the Somerset exit.

He is seeking in excess of $375,000 in damages plus attorneys' fees, according to the complaint.

State police spokesman Cpl. Adam Reed said Monday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation and had not yet received a copy of the complaint.

Neither Hardy nor his attorney, Michael P. Petro of Pittsburgh, could be reached for comment. Hardy has no criminal record, according to court records.

Hardy, who is black, was pulled over by Trooper Justin Coda, who alleged Harvey “was tailgating, or following too closely, another vehicle,” the 12-page lawsuit states.

Hardy claims Coda questioned why he was driving a rental vehicle, why he was travelling out of town and asked, “Why does the inside of your vehicle smell so good?”

Hardy refused Coda's request to search the vehicle, according to the lawsuit.

“Coda indicated to (Hardy) that he could not leave and that a canine unit from Greensburg would be called to their location and it would arrive in one hour,” the lawsuit alleges. About 2- 1⁄2 hours later, the canine unit arrived and “at some point thereafter, Coda indicated (to Hardy) that ‘we got a hit,' and troopers proceeded to search the inside of the vehicle.”

After another hour, Hardy alleges, he was permitted to contact an attorney.

“No items of contraband and/or controlled substance were found inside (Hardy's) vehicle,” the lawsuit states.

After the trooper spoke with Hardy's attorney, “Coda gave Hardy a warning for following too closely and allowed Hardy to leave.”

In addition to the agency, Hardy lists Coda and state police Commissioner Maj. Tyree Blocker as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that Blocker has permitted as a policy “racial profiling” of blacks, particularly males, traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and/or other interstate highways, to look for contraband and/or drugs.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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