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Drugs or beans? Knox Co. prosecutor dismisses case after test shows substance isn't heroin

Knoxville police arrested four people on drug charges. They spent nearly two weeks in jail before the charges were dropped.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Around $30,000 worth of a substance that police thought could be heroin seized by Knoxville officers in a traffic stop late last month turned out to be crushed, dried black beans — not drugs — leading prosecutors to drop cases against four people, one of their defense attorneys said. 

A KPD report from the April 23 traffic stop said officers pulled over the maroon Kia Forte with Florida tags on I-40 near Papermill Dr. for following another car too closely. The driver didn't have a proper ID, the report said, and gave conflicting statements to officers who began searching the car. 

Police found about $10,000 in cash secured with rubber bands, multiple air fresheners and multiple cell phones, the report said. A drug-sniffing K9 "alerted" on the outside of the car and officers found a green bag containing multiple clear plastic bags with a brown powder substance inside, the report said. 

Knoxville police do not conduct field tests on suspected heroin for fear of fentanyl exposure, a spokesperson said. A drug investigator responded to the scene with a "TruNarc" electronic drug detection device, which showed an "inconclusive" result, the report said.

Officers seized the powdery substance, the money, the phones and the car. They arrested Vincente Dominguez, 31, Elena Dominguez, 27, Claudia Escardna, 30, Pedro Reyes, 34, on drug charges. Defense Attorney Mike Whalen was assigned to represent Elena Dominguez.

"I said, 'Do you have any idea what could’ve been in these bags in the trunk?' And she looked at me and said, 'Frijoles,' which is Spanish for beans," Whalen said. 

He informed prosecutors, who asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to expedite the testing of the substance. Results of initial testing confirmed it was not heroin and prosecutors dismissed the case. 

"Our obligation as prosecutors is to seek the truth. Our duty to dismiss charges to protect the innocent is as important as our duty to pursue charges against the guilty," District Attorney Charme Allen said in a statement. 

By the time prosecutors dropped charges, the four people had spent 13 days in jail. The two men were turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Whalen said, and are still in custody as of Thursday. The two women were released.   

"They left the jail without the money and without their car and without their husbands," Whalen said. "So I can’t imagine the personal anguish that the two of them are still going through."  

A KPD spokesperson said there was no malicious intent with the stop and plenty of probable cause to believe they were trafficking heroin.

"We have to act on the information we have," he said. 

Whalen has a different take: "At this point, we now know they don’t know beans about drugs."

Whalen said a judge has now ordered the state to return the car and the cash, but it will take more than two weeks before the government cuts them a check. The women who were arrested have made their way to stay with family in Atlanta.