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Charlottesville man accused of running East Coast sex ring represents himself in federal court

The Charlottesville man accused of running an East Coast prostitution ring has taken over his own legal defense and spotted an omission that could disrupt the government’s case against him.

Brian Lamont Turner, the 43-year-old man who was arrested in January after an hourslong standoff with police, argues that data extracted without a warrant from his phone can’t be used to prosecute him — and a leading legal analyst agrees.

“The law is pretty well settled that you need a warrant to search the contents,” longtime Charlottesville lawyer David Heilberg told The Daily Progress. “I can’t predict what the judge will do, but I’m really dubious that that was a legal search.”

The judge who will make this decision is Norman K. Moon of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Moon held a hearing Tuesday at the federal courthouse in downtown Charlottesville on Turner’s motion to quash the evidence.

Relieved of his handcuffs but still clad in an orange jail-issue jumpsuit, Turner faced off against Melanie Smith, a business-suited assistant U.S. attorney who called three South Carolina-based law enforcers to the stand to explain how federal investigators took Turner’s telephone.

First up was Jessie Cramer, a Goose Creek police officer who was on evening patrol last summer when a man claimed that Turner had forced him from a Lexus at gunpoint and departed with his female passenger. What was dispatched as a possible carjacking and kidnapping, however, fizzled when the parties were debriefed at a nearby apartment complex, Cramer said. Turner said the Lexus belonged to him, and no charges were filed in the July 7 incident.

“Do you feel like you made a mistake in this investigation?” Turner asked Cramer.

“Objection,” said the prosecutor.

“Sustained,” said the judge.

It was during this incident that Turner dropped his phone. The Goose Creek Police Department’s evidence custodian, Tavares Liggons, testified that nobody approached him to retrieve the phone and he had no contact information for Turner.

The court also heard from South Carolina-based FBI agent Brian Clarity who told the court that he obtained the phone on Aug. 8 of last year from Liggons’ office about a month after the incident.

But when the prosecutor tried to get the FBI agent to agree that it’s typical for a criminal to avoid returning to a crime scene, even to retrieve a dropped possession, Turner objected. The prosecutor tried another question to elicit that information, and this time the judge cut her off.

“You don’t need any facts to argue common sense, what everybody knows,” said Moon.

Later, Smith got her chance to say that Turner abandoned his phone.

“When criminals commit crimes, they don’t go back to the crime scene to retrieve items,” Smith argued. “Just because he wasn’t later charged with those crimes doesn’t mean there wasn’t a crime committed and a crime scene.”

Turner, however, claimed he sent his girlfriend to get the phone. But she didn’t have his physical identification card, and the authorities wouldn’t release the device to the girlfriend. This time, it was the prosecutor objecting that Turner was improperly introducing evidence.

“Well, he’s helping you,” the judge told Smith. “I don’t know why you’re complaining.”

The judge told Turner he was underwhelmed by the phone-retrieval efforts.

“There’s no evidence in the record that you even went there,” said Moon.

“I understand that,” said Turner. “Your honor, I know that I’m not very well versed in this.”

Despite Turner’s self-deprecation in the courtroom and his hand-lettered court filings, Heilberg contends that Turner has correctly identified case law that supports the 4th Amendment’s protections for personal possessions.

“Just because a phone is abandoned doesn’t mean you give up your expectation of privacy,” said Heilberg.

And while the physical phone may have been abandoned, Heilberg said that Turner never relinquished his rights to its data.

An irony, Heilberg added, is that the only hurdle to obtaining a search warrant is a sworn “probable cause” statement that investigators present to a magistrate.

“If you have a chance to get a warrant, you get a warrant; they’re not hard to get,” said Heilberg. “A magistrate would have filled out the warrant with the snap of their fingers if they’d written an affidavit.”

The person overseeing the Turner investigation is Charlottesville-based FBI special agent Mary Grace Echols. The Daily Progress’ efforts to reach Echols via the Richmond FBI office, which oversees Charlottesville operations, proved unsuccessful.

In her criminal complaint, Echols alleges that the FBI began investigating Turner in February 2023 after receiving reports from local law enforcement agencies. The arrest warrant filed shortly before Turner’s Jan. 24 arrest at a house on St. Charles Avenue in the city charged Turner with interstate sex trafficking under a law formerly known as the Mann Act.

“Turner targets female victims who have drug addictions, recruits them, and uses their drug addictions to control them,” Echols wrote. “Turner becomes the victims’ source of drug supply in order to get them to follow his instructions and complete commercial sex acts.”

The complaint claims that Turner would place advertisements up and down the East Coast on SkiptheGames.com, a commercial sex arrangement website. He was pimping in Charlottesville and Lynchburg, Virginia; Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; and Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, among other cities, according to the complaint, which repeatedly cites data extracted from Turner’s dropped cell phone.

Echols asserts in her filing that she has training and experience in the the execution of searches. During Tuesday’s hearing, the judge grilled the prosecutor on this point.

“Why didn’t they get a warrant?” Moon asked Smith.

“If there was a mistake, it was a reasonable one,” Smith answered.

But Heilberg expressed doubt, because legal precedent permits warrantless searches only when there is an exigency.

“Exigency is just a fancy word for an emergency,” said Heilberg, noting that Turner’s phone sat in storage for a month before the FBI obtained it. “There was no exigency.”

If Turner and Heilberg are correct, then much of the evidence cited in Echols’ complaint would not be admissible.

“Anything derived from this dubious investigation might be deemed fruits of the poisonous tree,” he said, employing a popular legal metaphor.

Judge Moon gave no timeline for when he might rule, but with a seven-day trial set to begin Sept. 3, he urged the prosecution to share its discovery materials with Turner by May 10.

“It’s a lot to take on the government,” Turner told The Daily Progress in a telephone interview from Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange. “I’m fighting for my life in here.”

Sitting near the back of the third-floor courtroom for the first hour of what turned out to be a two-hour hearing was Jasmine Yoon, the recently confirmed appointee to a federal judgeship in Virginia’s Western District. Heilberg suggested Yoon could be witnessing the makings of an underdog upset even before taking the bench, due to Turner’s legal eye.

“That’s a pretty good catch for a civilian,” said Heilberg. “He’s got a real shot at that.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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