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DAY 1: Trial of former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester

"This is a case about the abuse of that incredible power."
Posted at 4:19 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 18:22:27-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — "This is a case about the abuse of that incredible power."

Zach Wester, the former Jackson County Deputy fired for planting evidence during traffic stops, is now on trial.

Opening statements in former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester's trial began with the prosecution, Tom Williams, reading off Wester's oath as an officer, saying. "[he] used the power of the badge in abuse more than 60 times."

Williams focused on how body camera footage caught most of the interactions wherein Wester is accused of abusing the power of the badge.

"While the defendant was searching her car, when she was out, he had complete control of that car," Williams said. "All we have is what his body camera video shows and what he would later put in his arrest reports when he arrested people."

Williams says there are some cases where there is no video at all, while others have partial video and the victim's fingerprints were never found on the baggies of drugs Wester is accused of planting.

Defense attorney Ryan Davis says Wester had zero complaints against him before his arrest. He's focusing on the presence of backup deputies as well as what he says invalidates the testimony from the victims.

"As this is going on, there's another number I want you to remember," said Davis. "Seven of the 12 people took pleas. The other five were dropped. There's going to be at least 33 other convictions and crimes of dishonesty."

Davis says Wester plans to testify.

The prosecution's sixth witness, Joshua Emmanuel, said he was pulled over by Wester while headed to work in Panama City in 2018.

Emmanuel says Wester told him his license had been suspended after he ran his tag. He says he wasn't aware of a suspended license.

Emmanuel says Wester told him a ticket from Bay County led to the suspended license. He says Wester told him to step up because he had a gun in the car. Says he went to the front of Wester's patrol car while Wester searched his car and a State Trooper was present.

Emmanuel says Wester would go between talking to him and searching his car.

"He said he found a syringe and a baggie that looked like it had been used," said Emmanuel. "He said it was stuffed down in between the passenger seat and the console."

He says he was shocked when Wester told him he found drugs in his car.

"If it was where he said it was, I would've seen it that night and that morning."

Bodycam video shows Wester in the car, then reading Emmanuel his Miranda Rights, then Wester telling him about the drugs Wester says he found in the car.

Wester is shown telling Emmanuel he’s being detained. Says he won’t put him in handcuffs. Wester then returns to the car and pulls out drugs “you never seen that before, man?” he asks Emmanuel.

Emmanuel says that was the first time he ever saw the drugs. As Wester bags up the evidence, Emmanuel remains near the front of the patrol car.

“How long have you had the car? How often do you clean the car," Wester asks Emmanuel.

“Dude, I have no idea. How far down was that in there," asked Emmanuel.

“I’m not saying you’re a bad person," Wester told Emmanuel. "A meth user isn’t going to leave narcotics in a vehicle.”

He then tells Emmanuel he doesn’t believe he’s a user or if so, he hasn’t been a user for long. Emmanuel takes his jacket off to prove he doesn’t have any track marks in the body camera. Wester says it tested presumptive positive in the field for meth and the needle was used.

Emmanuel said from the moment of claims of an expired license onward, he was confused.

Reginald Williams, the seventh witness was pulled over on his way to work in August 2017. Reginald Williams wasn't driving but it was his car, his friend, Rebecca Laster, was driving.

Wester pulled them over for a cracked windshield. Reginald Williams says it wasn't a large crack and he hadn't paid it any attention.

Reginald Williams

Wester searched the car after the stop. Both people inside the car stood in front of the squad car during the search.

"I could see him bent over in the car, but I couldn't see what he was doing in the car," said Reginald Williams.

He says Wester went back and forth between the patrol car and the stopped car. Says he couldn't see what was happening because the trunk was up. Wester then said he found meth in a lunch box and marijuana in his wallet.

Regianld Williams admitted to having priors during cross-examination by the defense.

Laster said Reginald Williams drove the car daily.

She said Wester went to the passenger side and never got her driver's license, even though she was the driver. She and Reginald Williams both said Wester told them he smelled weed coming from the car. Laster said she told him they didn't even have cigarettes.

Laster said she packed Reginald Williams' lunch every day and about five minutes passed between packing it and when Wester stopped htem. She says she didn't put meth in the lunch box.

Laster pulled her phone out when Wester arrested Reginald Williams and Wester told her she would be arrested if she didn't put her phone down so she stopped recording.

Steve Vann, the prosecution's ninth witness, says he was pulled over in April 2018.

Witness 9, Steve Vann

Vann says Wester told him his plate came back with no insurance. Vann says he showed a receipt that his insurance was paid a week earlier.

According to Vann, Wester then said he was pulled over for crossing the double yellow line.

"If I had crossed the double yellow line, I would've hit the other car," Vann said.

Vann said he was smoking a Marlboro but Wester said he smelled weed. Vann says he's been convicted five times and was released three weeks before the stop.

Vann said he gave full permission to search his car. Vann was instructed to go to the hood of Wester's patrol car.

"I knew my truck was clean," said Vann. "I knew it was."

The ninth witness said he never got a good look at Wester searching his car, but remembers Wester going to his patrol car twice during the search. He couldn't see what Wester was doing at the patrol car.

The bodycam footage shows Wester rummaging through the truck. He asks if someone was with Vann. Vann tells him a girl named Crystal, and protests when Wester asks about a baggie of drugs, saying, "Oh my God. No way, man."

Vann is seen crying on the body cam video as Wester recites his Miranda Rights.

"You've been nothing but respectful, man," Wester says in the video. "You're going to go to jail today for possession of meth."

BACKGROUND

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began its investigation into Wester in August 2018 and believes his actions resulted in more than 100 people being wrongly charged. Wester entered a not guilty plea in July.

According to court records, Wester is looking at 76 charges that include official misconduct, perjury, fabrication of evidence, possession of drugs, and false imprisonment

In most of the incidents reported in the affidavit, Wester's body-cam was either not recording, or only recorded part of the stop, whether that was the initial connection with the driver, or after a search of the car had already started.

Investigators believe that Wester placed drugs and other paraphernalia inside at least 16 victims' cars when his camera was off.

"The investigation revealed 42 items of drug paraphernalia, 10 separately packaged quantities of methamphetamine, and five separate items of marijuana. All of those items were recovered in deputy Wester's patrol vehicle," said Chris Williams, Assistant Special Agent in charge of FDLE Pensacola region.

If Wester is found guilty of all charges, he could face about 13 and a half years in state prison.

The jury consists of two female jurors and seven male jurors. The trial is anticipated to last roughly three weeks.