River Rats And Rural Police Abuse
Jesse Sasnett is a young, disabled Marine Veteran. I’m sharing this story with his permission, his encouragement even.
This is a story of folks just being folks, not hurting a soul, not being destructive, just having a good time on the banks of the Oconee River in Middle Georgia. It is also a story of how citizens can be treated, with impunity, by overbearing “Peace” Officers. Most importantly it is a story of how sticking to your guns can be successful.
Treutlen County is the 13th smallest in Georgia, with a population of approximately 6,800. Soperton, the County Seat and only town in the county, has a population of about 3,000. The unemployment rate in the county is 8.1%, which is 3.2% higher than the national average of 4.9%. If you sit on one of the benches along Main Street between 6:00 and 7:30 a.m and watch the traffic, it looks like rats leaving a sinking ship. Outside of local government, a handful of small businesses, and large farms there are no jobs so most folks drive 18+ miles to get to work in other counties.
With one glaring exception, the crime rate in Treutlen County is well below per capita national averages, with overall crime 50 points below the average. The glaring exception is Murder Risk (per capita), which is 32 points above the national average.
Data from the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) shows that in 2015 the Treutlen County Sheriff’s Office reported 0 (zero) Violent Crimes (Murder, Manslaughter, Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault), 17 Burglaries, 40 Thefts and 3 Motor Vehicle Thefts. I’m not sure how many of those crimes were cleared by arrest, but Treutlen reported 54 arrests for marijuana possession that year. Assuming all of the other cases were solved by arrest, they only total to 60. It’s not hard to see where the emphasis lies.
Wheeler County Boat Landing
The south-western border of Treutlen County is the Oconee River, separating it from Wheeler County. Georgia Highway 46 crosses the Oconee over a long bridge.
On the Wheeler County side of the Oconee is a public boat landing. Ruined structures at the landing indicate it was once a well-maintained recreation area, with picnic tables and camping spots on a bluff overlooking the river. Today only the boat ramp and parking lot appear to be maintained, and those not very well. Evidence in the area indicates that the old park and the trails along the bluffs are still used frequently.
The banks and bluffs along the Oconee in this area are great for exploring. Look in the right places and you can find Native American artifacts. There are sandbars to swim from, rock formations to jump from, and overhanging trees from which rope swings are often hung (until DNR finds them and cuts them down). Folks park at the landing and walk into the woods along the river often. There’s a wide, clear trail along the high banks overlooking the river.
Jesse Sasnett grew up in Treutlen County and joined The Corps shortly after graduating High School. He suffered a non-combat related injury and, after nearly 4 years, was discharged with a small disability pension. He returned to Treutlen County, began reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. One of those new friends is Dustin Lee, a young guy who has a non-marijuana felony record and who is trying the best he knows how to survive in a place where his chances of finding a job or any compassion are effectively zero. He has a lot of time on his hands The other is a friend from high school, Lewis John Wayne Graham (J.W.). He’s a good kid. Other than a few traffic violations he’s never crossed the law. I’ve never known him to be unemployed more than a few days.
Many folks around here like to play in and around the river. They are called “river rats”. These three are no exception and one fine afternoon they took a trip to the river. They drove to the Wheeler County boat landing and walked back along the banks, just exploring, finding an old tub that the river had washed up and using it to slide down a hill. Three kids in their twenties, chillin’ on the river bank, minding their own business and not hurting a soul.
As the three came back out of the woods, they ran into a surprise. The parking lot was full of Law Enforcement vehicles, surrounding Jesse’s car. No officers were visible, and when Jesse shouted out, the surprise turned ugly. Deputies came at them with guns leveled, including an AR-15, and the three were put on the ground in what is known as a “felony take-down”.
Now, remember this was in Wheeler County. With the exception of one deputy, all the others were from Treutlen County.
What Did We Do?
After being handcuffed and searched, Jesse asked what the hell was going on. The first answer, given by a Treutlen County deputy who apparently took charge of the incident was, “You’re trespassing”. Jesse pointed out there weren’t any “No Trespassing” signs anywhere around. (By the way, trespassing is not a felony.)
Then it became, “Y’all are growing marijuana back there and you were watering it”. They had a 20 ounce Gatorade bottle and Aquafina bottle. Both were empty and when Jesse pointed out that the bottles weren’t big enough to water a daisy and that they had brought them back off the riverbank rather than litter, that line was dropped.
Finally, they were told that a call had come in about someone with a gun along the riverbank threatening to commit suicide and they were asked if they’d seen anyone. They answered, “Yeah, there were a couple of folks here when we went in and there was another car parked in the lot”. Then Jesse asked why they were in handcuffs. At that point, The Treutlen County deputy said, “I know you won’t give me permission to search this car, but I smell marijuana and I’m searching it anyway”. Which he did. During the search, a sandwich baggie was found on the back floorboard. In one corner of that baggie were a few crumbs of “something”, so Jesse was arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
It Gets Worse
After the arrest, a wrecker was called to tow Jesse’s car. When asked if J.W., who has a valid license, could just drive it back to Treutlen County, the deputy who had taken charge refused. Jesse was turned over to the Wheeler County deputy, who transported him to the Wheeler County jail. Jesse says that deputy commented on how effed up the situation was as they were riding.
After the vehicle was towed, the party started breaking up and the two remaining river rats, who had by then been released, asked if they could get a ride back to Treutlen County. They were told to, “hit the road walking” and the Treutlen County deputies left the scene and went back to “their” County.
As an aside here, I hope the suicidal guy in the woods with a gun survived.
The Counseling Session
I was introduced to Jesse Sasnett and John Wayne Lewis long before this incident, and Jesse knew my background. He came to me with this story. I listened, and the more I heard, the more concerned I got. I’m not an attorney, but I’m a retired cop and keep up with Georgia laws. I’m also a Constitutionalist and I believe in the Power of The People in their form of the Trial Jury. Since this was a misdemeanor marijuana case, it was scheduled for Probate Court, I told Jesse I personally would ask for a Jury Trial. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, it kicks the case into Superior Court where you can be assigned a Public Defender if need be. Two, it gives you time to get your stuff together, maybe HIRE an attorney and prepare a defense. Delaying tactics are good things. Jesse chose to take my advice and had the case transferred. I also put him in touch with an attorney.
Having been a Deputy Sheriff in Georgia, I know a little about the court system. As the Chief Deputy of Johnson County, I was in court every session and dealt with the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender and Judges on an almost daily basis.
Transferring a case from a lower court to Superior Court takes a bit of time. Getting the case on a calendar takes more time. Then there’s an arraignment day, on which you show up, enter your plea, maybe talk to a Public Defender, and then basically go home. Your case is then set for a trial date. In between, there are Motion Days and Status Hearings and it just takes a while to get to that final trial date.
Jesse’s Day In Court
Jesse attended every court date faithfully, even though he’d moved three hours away to Columbus, had a job and was taking college courses.
When the trial date rolled around Jesse was there. He had been unable to put enough money together to get a private attorney, and had things gone differently, would have asked for a Public Defender. Before the case was called, the District Attorney offered Jesse a pretty sweet plea deal, but he stuck to his guns. When the Judge asked the District Attorney if the State’s case was ready, the DA balked. It turns out there were no witnesses in Court, nor were there any Incident Reports, Lab Results or Evidence available in the District Attorney’s files. Apparently, none of the deputies from either county had followed up on their “big bust” by doing any of the required paperwork.
The Judge looked at Jesse and said something to the effect of “Son, if you’ll pay the $85.00 court costs, I’ll dismiss this”. Jesse did exactly that, and he’s happy the criminal charges were dismissed. He’s pissed about the whole thing, though and I can’t say I blame him. While he can have the arrest record expunged, and will, it’s just another inconvenience and cost added to the bail money, wrecker fees, travel expense and court costs. All over some kinda crumbs in a sandwich bag that may or may not have been marijuana.
Law Enforcement By The Seat Of The Pants
While this is a success story for Jesse and the idea of No Plea For Me, it is also a glaring example of how law enforcement officers can run amok. I think some of them just make it up as they go along.
My primary complaint is the Felony Take-Down. Accosting these citizens with drawn weapons at a public boat landing under the given circumstances is abhorrent to me. Felony take-downs should only be used in Felony circumstances.
The second complaint is the apparent lack of follow-up by the officers involved. Seems to me that if the case was important enough to put the river rats’ lives in danger by pointing weapons at them, it should have been important enough to write an Incident Report. I get their reasoning for not sending the “crumbs” to the GBI Crime Lab, though. They would have been embarrassed when the lab laughed at them for sending such a minuscule amount for testing.
My third complaint is the fact that not one of them bothered to show up on the trial date. Once again, if the case was important enough to put the river rats’ lives in danger by pointing weapons at them, it should have been important enough to show up for the trial.
The fourth complaint is the lack of action by the Wheeler County Deputy. He allowed all of this to take place in his jurisdiction under the direction of a deputy from another jurisdiction, apparently without ever saying a word about it, except to tell Jesse it was “effed up”.
Fifth, “I SMELL MARIJUANA“. It’s getting pretty old, ain’t it?
Lastly, I must reiterate, “I hope the suicidal guy in the woods with a gun survived”.