‘Nobody is above the law’: Man whose conviction was overturned talks about moving on

By: - November 15, 2021 8:56 am

Prison bars and a cell at Robben Island (Photo by Michael Coghlan | Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Hoang Vinh Pham speaks English haltingly, sometimes in broken phrases. Despite struggling for words on occasion, he speaks clearly and understands perfectly a concept that he said kept him going while sitting in Montana State Prison in Shelby.

“I don’t believe that they did right. Nobody is above the law,” Pham said. “They are supposed to follow the law and follow procedure. But they didn’t follow rules.”

Pham is referring to three law enforcement agents who noticed him heating a bowl of noodles at a gas station in Miles City in 2017. Pham was on his way from Butte to Minnesota to check out a car that was totaled. Three law enforcement officers – from the Department of Criminal Investigation and the Montana Highway Patrol – were transporting nearly a half ton of marijuana for evidence storage in Billings.

Pham, according to court documents, was staring out the window at the van carrying the drugs, and Agent Richard Smith thought he looked nervous. The three agents knew that drug transport along the highway was common and there’d been several arrests of Vietnamese people for trafficking along Interstate 94, so they decided to question Pham.

Pham’s broken English apparently added to the suspicion. After some questioning and confrontation, officers searched the car Pham said he had borrowed from a friend to see his wrecked car, and when they looked, they discovered marijuana.

Pham was eventually tried and convicted of felony possession with intent to distribute, sentenced to 15 years in prison, and assessed more than $16,000 in fines.

However, after more than four years in prison, the Montana State Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the reasons behind it unanimously, saying that search and seizure was unconstitutional, therefore setting Pham free.

“I knew if I got to see the bosses, they’d understand,” Pham said.

Today, Pham is back in Washington, living with a brother and trying to find a job. It’s admittedly not easy trying to explain where you were for the past four years. It’s even harder – in English or Vietnamese – to explain an overturned conviction.

“I am starting over,” Pham said.

He came out of prison with just a pair of sweatpants and a couple of T-shirts. The rest of things were gone. What money he had with him, he said was of little help because it was in the form of check – yet he had no bank account for a deposit.

When in prison, he lost his cell phone, and all of his personal possessions. He doesn’t have the international contacts and lost touch with family members and friends.

And his girlfriend.

Even he understands that she probably wouldn’t wait some fraction of the 15-year sentence for him to return.

“She said she wouldn’t wait for me,” Pham said. “And I can’t contact people in Vietnam. They moved. I don’t know where they are at.”

Still, he said he’s grateful for his freedom and still believes that no one is above the law – a phrase he repeated often during an interview with the Daily Montanan.

The Supreme Court’s rebuke of the officers who detained and ultimately arrested Pham was clear, “Based on this scant information, we see no objective data or resulting suspicion justifying Agent Smith’s seizure of Pham.”

“I was just wasting my time. I was stressed out,” Pham said. “And that still causes me a lot of mental problems.”

The court warned that not using proper law enforcement tools to detain, arrest or search residents leads to them being treated like “second-class citizens.”

As Pham sat in prison, waiting for the appeals process, speaking little English, he said one thought gave him comfort.

“I was thinking about how to keep close to my family,” Pham said. “And I was dreaming about how I would start my life again.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.