Charges have been dropped against two men accused of selling heroin in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood in February 2017.

The cases against Ricky Antoinne Osborne, 35, and Matthew Robert Bloxton, 24, were dismissed by prosecutors after a Minnesota Court of Appeals panel concluded Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force investigators lacked "reasonable suspicion" to detain and search the two men.

The suspects, both of whom are African American, were stopped at a cafe after they were seen leaving a nearby apartment building where police had learned heroin was being sold by a "group of black males," according to court documents.

But that stop should not have occurred, according to the appeals court, which in late April suppressed evidence obtained in a search of the men and their belongings — including 50 grams of powder that authorities said tested positive for heroin and fentanyl.

"The record is silent as to any suspicious behavior on the part of Osborne and (Bloxton) prior to their seizure, other than the fact they were observed leaving the apartment complex and matched the racial profile of the suspected dealers," Judge Renee Worke wrote in an eight-page opinion.

Without the evidence, Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Vicky Wanta formally dismissed the charges against both men in recent days. Osborne had been serving a prison sentence in excess of 10 years; Bloxton's case was still pending.

"We respect the Court of Appeals' decision but it is important to remember that the Court of Appeals' opinion is one perspective at the end of a long line of previous decisions made on this case that hold to the contrary," Wanta said Friday. "These previous decisions include the decisions made by the task force, myself and the district court judges who reviewed the search warrants, reviewed constitutional issues and presided over the trial.

"Our office stands by the decisions the task force made during the investigation into Mr. Osborne and Mr. Bloxton. Our task force is one that excels, and it is because they conduct their investigations in a professional, impartial and informed manner."

Tip, surveillance lead to searches

According to court documents, the case was initiated with a tip from a confidential informant. Investigators learned multiple African American males were reported to be staying with a resident of an apartment on the 2800 block of West Third Street and selling heroin.

Investigators executed a search warrant, finding one black man who they did not believe to be a dealer. About a mile away at Randy's Cafe, 2125 W. Superior St., police detained Osborne and Bloxton. Both men had been observed leaving the apartment building, according to documents, but they had not been identified as suspects in the warrant.

After being shown photographs of Osborne and Bloxton, cooperating witnesses in the apartment identified the men and said they had been seen breaking up and bagging heroin in the residence. Investigators used that information to obtain another warrant to search the men.

Inside a backpack, police said they found two separately packaged powders that tested positive for heroin, fentanyl and other substances. DNA testing of several items in the bag produced matches for Osborne, and a tablet computer was signed into his Facebook account. Osborne also had more than $4,600 in cash — most of it found in his shoes.

Both men were charged with first-degree sale of more than 10 grams of heroin.

Osborne moved for the evidence to be suppressed, arguing that his detention at the cafe was unlawful because police lacked reasonable suspicion that he had committed any crime. But Judge Dale Harris sided with Wanta, who argued that the stop was made under reasonable circumstances for purposes of further investigation, as the men had been seen leaving a known drug house.

Osborne later waived his right to a jury and was found guilty at a bench trial. Judge Shaun Floerke subsequently sentenced him to 128 months in prison, where he remained until Monday.

Judge David Johnson also denied a similar motion to suppress the evidence in Bloxton's case. His case was scheduled to go before a jury in August.

Court: No evidence of 'suspicious' activity

In overturning Osborne's case, the appeals court noted that investigators had not actually seen the two men leaving the specific apartment where the drug sales were suspected.

While the men matched the racial description of the suspects, that can't be the "sole factor" in justifying an investigative stop, Worke said.

"The record only supports that Osborne was observed leaving an apartment complex via the backdoor, the upstairs unit of which was under observation as a known drug house," she wrote. "Second, the only 'suspicious' activity demonstrated by Osborne was the fact that he matched the racial profile of the suspected dealers."

The appeal was handled by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, which did not pursue further review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. With the drug evidence thrown out, Wanta cited "interests of justice" in declining to pursue further prosecution.

Lt. Jeff Kazel, who heads the task force, defended the work of his investigators and said he doesn't believe the decision will have any broader ramifications.

"I don’t think it has any change in how we continue to investigate drug cases," he said. "We did everything we were supposed to do, and while we don't agree with the outcome, we respect the court and their decision."