Prosecutors' synthetic pot case slammed by magistrate

After 4-hour hearing, bail set at $10,000

A federal magistrate judge on Thursday slammed the government’s case against a Baton Rouge man accused in an international smuggling ring, describing the evidence against him as weak and paving the way for the alleged smuggler to be set free on bail Friday morning.

The decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen C. Riedlinger came Thursday evening following more than four hours of testimony and cross examination. During the bail hearing, Tim Minh Tran’s defense attorney presented Tran, 42, as a family man who never dealt in the synthetic marijuana business once the drug was declared illegal.

Outside of the courtroom following the hearing, Lance C. Unglesby, Tran’s attorney, said Tran made his fortune — which has netted Tran luxurious cars and a mansion off O’Neal Lane — selling synthetic marijuana before it became an illegal drug. Tran made additional money operating ATMs and selling various convenience store supplies out of his warehouse on Florida Boulevard, Unglesby said.

“We proved today that Tim Tran is the legitimate businessman that I said he was yesterday,” Unglesby said. “This case is tenuous and nothing more than a reach by the government.”

Riedlinger set Tran’s bail at $10,000. By the time the hearing concluded, the Clerk of Court’s Office where the payment must be made was closed, meaning Tran would need to wait until Friday morning before he could post bail and be released from the West Baton Rouge Parish Jail. He’s been held there since Tuesday night after federal agents raided his mansion on Centurion Avenue and his Florida Boulevard business, Tim’s Warehouse.

The authorities also arrested him Tuesday following a sweeping indictment filed recently in federal court in Oklahoma alleging that Tran participated in a smuggling and conspiracy operation centered around importing chemicals used to make synthetic cannabinoids — commonly described as synthetic marijuana — into the U.S. from China.

At Thursday’s hearing, Unglesby attacked the allegations in the four-count indictment as baseless, saying Tran was not connected to the smuggling of any chemicals used to create synthetic cannabinoids after the specific chemical compounds were banned in Louisiana. The attorney brought Tran’s mother, wife and sister to the witness stand in an effort to prove that despite Tran’s Vietnamese nationality, the successful businessman is rooted in southern Louisiana. It was an effort to prove that Tran had no reason to skip town if he was granted release on bail.

Tran is expected to post bail Friday morning. Even so, his release could be short-lived.

After Riedlinger announced Tran’s bail amount and the various conditions attached to it, such as requirements that he wear a GPS monitoring device and turn over his passport to the government if released, the assistant U.S. attorney said prosecutors in the Northern District of Oklahoma — where the indictment was handed down June 9 and where the case is being prosecuted — plan to file a motion to revoke Tran’s bail. For the bail to be revoked, a hearing would need to be held in Oklahoma in front of the judge presiding over the case. The judge could either agree to revoke the bail, in which case Tran would be arrested, or the judge could deny the request, meaning Tran would remain free on supervised release pending the outcome of the case.

M. Patricia Jones, the prosecutor representing the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Louisiana, fought to have Tran labeled as a flight risk, citing his flush bank accounts, his Vietnamese nationality and some of his family’s legal troubles as evidence he might flee. Jones also harped on Tran’s own criminal past, including an arrest for resisting an officer at his warehouse in May, using the run-in as an example to represent a pattern of Tran’s alleged refusal to comply with law enforcement.

Tran was never officially charged in the May incident, in which police also accused him of possessing cases of toilet paper stolen from BREC.

Prosecutors also brought up Tran’s appearance this week in state district court, where he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-offense possession of synthetic marijuana, receiving a one-year probation sentence for doing so just hours before being arrested by federal authorities. The state conviction stemmed from a 2011 incident in which Baton Rouge police conducted a controlled delivery at Tran’s warehouse of a package containing nearly two kilograms of a chemical known as an active ingredient in synthetic cannabinoids.

Another matter focused on by the prosecutor during Thursday’s hearing was the fact that authorities found a loaded firearm in the drawer of a bedside table while searching Tran’s home — a potentially serious violation considering Tran is a convicted felon. The felony stemmed from an access device fraud conviction in the 1990s for cloning phones, Jones said.

Tran’s wife testified that the gun belonged to her and that she bought it for protection.

Regardless, the matter involving the gun concerned Riedlinger. It prompted the magistrate judge to spell out in clear terms that as a condition of Tran’s release, he may not keep a firearm in his car, his house or his business, as that would still constitute possession of a firearm by a felon even if the gun isn’t registered in his name.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough to convince the magistrate that Tran needed to remain locked up.

“There’s just not a lot of evidence of Mr. Tran’s involvement on these charges alleged in the indictment,” Riedlinger said. He added later, “There’s just no convincing evidence that Mr. Tran is a flight risk or a danger to the community.”

Tran will be subject to random drug tests as a condition of his release, although his family members testified that he never uses drugs or drinks alcohol. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes, they testified.

Tran is listed as one of 11 defendants in an indictment handed down in federal court in Oklahoma alleging that he and others smuggled chemicals into the country in packages labeled fraudulently as containing food additives or cleaning agents, when in fact they were filled with chemicals known to be used in the creation of synthetic cannabinoids.

Tran faces charges of conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering.

In addition to Tran, a Baton Rouge woman, a Denham Springs man and two people from New Orleans also are listed as defendants in the indictment.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on July 18, 2014, to reflect that the indictment in the Northern District of Oklahoma was handed down on June 9.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.