An American citizen of Middle Eastern descent says drug possession charges against him were a result of profiling, which he says occurred when he stopped with a friend at the Tobyhanna Army Depot to ask directions and was arrested after khat was found in their vehicle.
Jabra Abdulmajid, 28, who owns a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., is awaiting trial on khat possession charges, according to court records.
Khat (pronounced “cot”) is a stimulant derived from a shrub native to northeastern Africa and the Middle East. Its effects are similar to but less intense than those of methamphetamine or cocaine, according to information at http://www.streetdrugs.org.
Attorney Michael Ventrella, who is representing Abdulmajid, has filed a memorandum for an omnibus pretrial motion challenging the case. The memorandum gives the following account:
On the early morning of Oct. 10, Abdulmajid was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a friend, identified only as “Ms. Ortiz,” heading from Buffalo to New York City. Ortiz was looking for a place to stop for the night, turned off Interstate 380 South at the Tobyhanna exit and got lost.
Abdulmajid was asleep in the passenger seat, unaware the driver had turned off the highway and was lost. Ortiz pulled into the Tobyhanna Army Depot to ask for directions and to use a restroom.
Officer Jason Orenich was on duty at the security gate and asked Ortiz for identification. Orenich learned her driver’s license had been suspended. Abdulmajid was found to have a valid license and be an American citizen with no criminal record.
Orenich asked Ortiz to sign a form giving consent to search her vehicle. She did so, believing she had no choice and nothing to hide.
Orenich later said at a district court preliminary hearing that not every vehicle is stopped and searched, depending on how busy things are at the depot.
Orenich searched the vehicle and found a green substance that at first appeared to be marijuana in a baggie on the front seat. Ortiz told him it was herbal tea, a common use for khat.
Orenich also found $26,755.75 in cash and then called Pocono Mountain Regional Police, who arrived and took Abdulmajid into custody. A police dog sniffed the money and gave a reaction, which officers interpreted as the money testing positive for the presence of drugs, which police said is not unusual.
Abdulmajid was arrested and taken to police headquarters. Ortiz later signed a stipulation forfeiting the money, even though the money was not hers. The green substance found in her vehicle turned out to be khat.
Police Officer Matt Nero later said at the preliminary hearing that there was no evidence of possession with intent to deliver and that the money was confiscated because it alerted the dog and because of how the money was packaged. Nero said it is not illegal to carry large sums of money.
Ventrella’s memorandum challenges the case against Abdulmajid, saying the Commonwealth (prosecution) has not established that:
Local police have jurisdiction on federal property such as the Tobyhanna Army Depot.
Khat is illegal in the U.S.
The memorandum raises also the following points:
It denies due process to charge someone based on a law that’s not published or distributed through normal means. In other words, if someone is found with khat and has no way of knowing it’s illegal, he/she should not be held criminally liable.
The search of Ortiz’s vehicle was illegal and the result of profiling.
The law allowing the Secretary of Health to designate new drugs as illegal is unconstitutional.
Since the Commonwealth cannot show a connection between the confiscated money and any illegal activity, the money should be returned.
Attorneys on both sides have declined to comment until after the case is resolved.
Eventually a deal was reached wherein Mr. Abdulmajid entered a period of probation without pleading guilty, at the conclusion of which his record was wiped clean.