DOBSON — No one thought Jose Lynn France — or Jose Lynn Espada Jr., as he clarified is his real name in court last week — would take a plea deal.
The 39-year-old member of the Moorish Nation had been charged with two class I felony drug violations in connection with a March 2014 traffic stop.
In court and in stacks of handwritten affidavits, Espada had vocally maintained his innocence since the encounter, claiming both that his U.S. Constitutional rights had been violated by law enforcement and that the court has no jurisdiction over Moors.
The Moorish Nation is a type of sovereign citizen movement in which adherents believe that descendants of Moors were fraudulently brought to the United States by European colonists, and therefore not subject to federal and state laws.
He was indicted earlier this year with attaining habitual felon status.
Espada had complained in the July term of Superior Court that he had requested video footage from the sheriff’s dashboard camera and had requested maintenance records after being told the camera hadn’t been functioning during the traffic stop.
The case was set for trial in the August term, and Presiding Judge Nathaniel Poovey heard pretrial motions on August 2.
For motions involving Moorish Nation sovereignty, “the judge just shut him down and wouldn’t even hear it,” said Assistant District Attorney Mark Miller, who tried the case for the state.
But for “everything that was a legitimate motion,” Poovey paid close attention, Miller said.
And it wasn’t looking good for Espada.
With most of his motions shot down, Poovey told Espada that afternoon that he would likely deny his motion to dismiss the charges.
Miller had offered the defendant a deal that would limit his sentence to 30 to 39 months.
Poovey told Espada to “think about this very carefully.”
A defendant with habitual felon status is sentenced four felony classes higher than the underlying charges. So that means class I felonies are sentenced as class E.
With those sentencing requirements, Espada faced a maximum punishment of 50 to 72 months, “times two” the judge said, totaling 8.33 years to about 10.5 years.
If a jury returned a guilty verdict, “I’m not telling you I would give you the maximum, but I wouldn’t be bound to 30 to 39 either,” Poovey said. “I want to make sure you understand what you’re rejecting. I don’t have a dog in the fight. I don’t care. I promise I will give you the absolutely fairest trial,” he continued. “If you turn down this plea offer, you’re turning down a substantial plea offer. You’re knocking six years off your sentence.”
Perhaps sensing Espada’s hesitation, he said, “I don’t want you to regret accepting it either.”
“You seem like a really intelligent guy,” Poovey said, reminding Espada of “the old adage: the man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer.”
Poovey gave the defendant the night to sleep on it.
In the morning, he appeared in court, and, with the jury upstairs and waiting, indicated he would take the deal.
“I believe after my conversation with Mr. Erdmann that would be in my best interests,” Espada said.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do,” Poovey asked Espada again.
“I understand in most cases the jury sides with law enforcement, and not having actual documentation of the video footage,” he didn’t think he could overcome that.
Poovey asked him again, noting “I understand this is something you’re not glad about.”
“My spirit is vexed to go on with this matter,” Espada said. “There’s a lot of things at law enforcement, transpiring not only here but everywhere. Deputy Holbrook is not a bad officer. None of the officers are bad. Officers on duty, they need to be equipped with video surveillance.”
Poovey said, “I understand those are opinions you hold. I’m just trying to make sure the plea here is a calculated decision.”
“I do it voluntarily and under my own free will,” Espada stated.
Miller summarized the state’s evidence.
Deputy Ken Holbrook had seen Espada parked in a vehicle near a convenience store in Dobson.
“From his past experience he knew the defendant didn’t have a valid drivers license,” Miller stated.
When Holbrook pulled him over, he spotted “what appeared to be meth or cocaine” in the center panel of the car. The defendant grabbed it, tried to hide it, then Espada swallowed it.
Holbrook called for backup, used pressure points to get Espada to throw it up, for his own health because the large quantity, according to information given in court. A few granules came out and landed on the trunk. Those later tested positive for cocaine-based schedule II controlled substance.
Espada was hospitalized at Hugh Chatham Memorial for two days.
“I would just like to apologize to Mr. Holbrook that this particular matter even occurred,” Espada said. “My spirit is vexed. I have to take accountability for my own personal actions,” he continued. “I just want to get my life back on track, and if I do come back to Surry County (after prison) I just want to seek gainful employment and move on with my life.”
Poovey accepted Espada’s pleas of guilty to possession of cocaine and maintaining a drug vehicle and acquiring the status of a habitual felon and sentenced him to a 30- to 48-month term of imprisonment.
A charge of driving while license revoked not for an impairment was dismissed.
“I take your remorse as sincere,” Poovey said. “I hope and pray — you don’t have anything else pending — you’ll get out with a clean slate. I encourage you to take advantage of that.”
Espada responded by stating, “I truly believe that God sent you here today, and I pray for all of you.”
Deputy Holbrook was present in the courtroom during the hearing.
“It really suprised me he took the plea,” Holbrok said. “I was surprised with the plea, surprised he apologized and admitted his guilt.”
Miller also expressed surprise with the plea.
“He had turned the same plea offer down before,” the prosecutor said. “The result is fair.”
When asked if sovereign nation defenses are ever successful in court, Miller responded “No. Never.”
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson said the actions of some sovereign citizen movements are sometimes referred to as “paper terrorism” because they flood public officials and law enforcement with law suits and other court actions that can take time and energy to address.
Many states passed laws that prohibit the filing of false liens on property, which was a common tactic.
Other individuals used their sovereign authority to squat in houses.
“We don’t have a lot of it,” in Surry County, the sheriff said.
Some sovereign citizens movements are more closely aligned with violence, such as the standoff in Waco, Texas.
Espada did not fall into that category, Atkinson said.
“We’ve had many encounters with him, on the street and in jail,” he said. “There’s been nothing I’ve ever seen out of him that presents a threat.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.