A former North Florida sheriff's deputy was convicted Tuesday of planting drugs on innocent motorists.
Following a week-long trial that included testimony from a dozen people who said they were framed, a jury found former Jackson County Sheriff's Deputy Zachary Wester guilty of 19 of 67 criminal charges, including racketeering, false imprisonment, fabricating evidence, official misconduct, and drug possession.
The Tallahassee Democrat first reported in September 2018 that local prosecutors were dropping dozens of cases involving Wester after body cam footage appeared to show him planting a small baggie of meth in a woman's car during a traffic stop. The Democrat later published accounts by several other people who claimed they were framed by Wester during traffic stops.
In January 2019, Reason obtained body camera footage of one of the dropped cases through a public records request. The video showed Wester appearing to find a small baggie with traces of white powder in it in the center console of Florida resident Steve Vann's car during a April 17, 2018, traffic stop.
"There ain't no way, man," a distraught Vann says in the video. "Oh my God, you gotta be fucking kidding me."
Wester tested the contents of the baggie using a Nark II field test, which is supposed to turn blue for a presumptive positive result for methamphetamines and MDMA. The solution instead turned burgundy, indicating a negative result.
Nevertheless, Wester told Vann that the test had come back presumptively positive for methamphetamines and placed him under arrest. Vann was subsequently charged with possession of methamphetamines and paraphernalia, but state prosecutors later dropped those charges as part of a review of more than 250 cases that Wester was involved with.
In July 2019, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested Wester. In a 30-page affidavit, the FDLE alleged Wester kept unmarked bags of marijuana, methamphetamines, and drug paraphernalia in the trunk of his patrol car, manipulated his body cam footage, planted drugs in people's cars, and falsified arrest reports to railroad innocent people under the color of law.
His victims, many of whom had prior records or were working to stay sober, had their lives upended. One man lost custody of his daughter.
All 12 of Wester's alleged victims testified at the trial, including Vann.
Vann testified that Wester originally said he pulled him over because his license plates came back with no insurance, but after Vann showed him proof of current insurance, Wester changed his story to say Vann had drifted over the double-yellow line.
Vann had gotten out of jail three weeks earlier, and he knew the routine. "Here we go again," he thought when Wester then said he smelled the odor of burnt marijuana in Vann's car.
"I knew my truck was clean," Vann testified. "I knew it was."
According to testimony in the trial, a forensics lab later tested the contents of the baggie Wester allegedly found in Vann's car, and it came back positive for methamphetamines.
Wester denied planting any of the drugs, claimed his body camera simply malfunctioned, and testified that the drugs found in the trunk of his squad car were discovered in a public restroom the day he was suspended, before he had a chance to properly inventory them.
The jury didn't buy it. Wester was convicted of charges related to three of the 12 traffic stops, including Vann's.
Eleven of those motorists have also filed civil lawsuits against Wester and the Jackson County Sheriff's Office.
Wester's defense attorney told the Tallahassee Democrat that he will appeal, specifically regarding Wester's racketeering conviction, the most serious offense he was found guilty of.
Before joining the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, Wester was fired from his previous job at the Liberty County Sheriff's Office for inappropriate relations with women, the Democrat reported.
The prosecutor who first flagged some of Wester's suspicious cases later quit the state attorney's office and filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint against her former employer, saying she was "ostracized and ignored" after bringing Wester's misconduct to light.
In body camera footage played throughout the trial, Wester appeared upbeat, even jovial, as he went about his business.
During one of his traffic stops, he told one of his victims, "You've got to be careful who you let in your vehicle."
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.