Supreme Court upholds 75-year-old Danbury store owner’s drug convictions
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the drug convictions of a Danbury general store owner despite his contention that inspectors unjustly searched a desk on his property in 2009, a search that led to the discovery of cocaine, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms.
The unanimous ruling affirmed a trial court’s decision to admit evidence retrieved during the search, which began as a routine liquor inspection of the store. Owner Richard Gness, 75, had argued that the inspectors lacked a search warrant and overstepped their authority.
But the justices said it was well within the inspectors’ rights to open a desk drawer based on suspicion that it contained unlicensed liquor. Requiring officials to obtain a warrant before every inspection is illogical and would severely limit the state’s ability to uncover violations, they noted.
“In the liquor industry, as in the pharmaceutical industry, warrantless searches promote efficiency, allow investigators to quickly investigate potential wrongdoing and deter statutory violations,” Justice Robert Lynn wrote for the group.
At the time of the search, Gness was licensed to sell just beer and wine. But months before their visit, inspectors received a tip that he was peddling liquor under the table, and while at the store, one of them overheard a patron ask to buy a bottle of vodka. Gness told the patron he didn’t sell it, but an invoice showed he had purchased wine and vodka together from a state liquor store – a violation.
Gness insisted that the vodka was for his own use. When asked to retrieve the bottles from his apartment upstairs, however, he grew silent and seemed at a loss, the inspectors reported. After a pause, he told them the bottles were at another property. One of the inspectors noticed a drawer in Gness’s office desk that looked large enough to store the liquor. She opened it and found a bag of marijuana.
The inspectors left and obtained a search warrant for Gness’s apartment, where they found the vodka and the other drugs, including a few grams of cocaine, 26 bags of mushrooms, firearms and more than $7,000 in cash.
Gness was convicted in 2012 of drug possession with intent to distribute and sentenced to a year in jail and four years on probation, all of which was postponed pending yesterday’s decision. His attorney, Andrew Schulman, said the case will now return to Merrimack County Superior Court for sentence imposition. He said he would likely request an alternative to incarceration, such as home confinement and work release, given Gness’s age and nonviolent history.
Gness, who has owned the store for four and a half decades, said in an interview yesterday that he would try to keep it in operation for at least another year. He said one of his daughters might be willing and able to take it over.
“It’s my livelihood,” he said.
Asked about the court’s ruling, he said, “I still don’t think they had a right to do the search.”
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)