URBANA — A Champaign County jury took less than an hour Wednesday to convict a Champaign man of being an armed drug dealer.
Jermaine Johnson, 32, who last lived in the 900 block of Oakcrest Drive, faces up to 30 years in prison when Judge Roger Webber sentences him on Nov. 30 for being an armed habitual criminal and for possession with intent to deliver cocaine.
Both charges stemmed from his arrest Feb. 1, 2020, in a vehicle that a Champaign police officer stopped about 10:45 p.m. because it had run a stop sign at the intersection of Centennial and Sangamon drives.
Then-Champaign police Officer James Hobson, now a state trooper, testified Tuesday that despite putting on his lights to effect a stop, the driver of the Dodge Durango kept going for a few blocks before eventually stopping in the 2900 block of Maplewood Drive.
Hobson said that even as he followed the Durango, and as he approached it when it stopped, he smelled the strong odor of cannabis coming from it and decided he would search the vehicle. Finding five people in it, he called for more officers to help him. Johnson was alone in the middle row of the vehicle. There were two people in front of him and two behind him.
Hobson said he was searching Johnson when Sgt. Justin Prosser found a loaded revolver on the floor behind the front passenger seat to the right of where Johnson had been sitting.
In Johnson’s pockets, Hobson found two plastic bags that contained white powder, a wad of cash, two cellphones and empty plastic bags.
A former member of the Champaign County Street Crimes Task Force, Hobson said it is common for drug dealers to carry two phones — one for personal use and a second burner phone to communicate with customers — and to have plastic bags on them. Johnson did not have any paraphernalia on him to smoke or ingest the cocaine, the officer testified.
Later testimony from an Illinois State Crime lab analyst was that one of the bags contained about 3.7 grams of cocaine while the other contained a powder that did not contain a controlled substance.
Hobson said he swabbed the gun for DNA and took DNA samples for comparison from each of the people in the Durango. Another state crime lab analyst concluded that the major contributor to DNA found on the gun handle was Johnson, while the other four people were not contributors.
“There’s no way that’s not his gun,” argued Assistant State’s Attorney Scott Larson, pointing to the DNA analyst’s conclusion that the chances were 1 in 1 nonillion (a one followed by 30 zeros) that the DNA came from someone other than Johnson.
Johnson admitted to Hobson that he was eating the cannabis the officer smelled to get rid of it when he realized the officer was behind them and that the white powder in his pocket was cocaine. But he denied knowledge of the gun, giving what Larson called “defensive answers” about the weapon.
“He possesses a gun because he’s in the business of selling drugs. It’s inherently dangerous. This is a fully loaded gun, ready to go,” said Larson.
Larson said the empty plastic bags, the two cellphones, the lack of drug paraphernalia, the cocaine in one bag and the cutting agent in another, and the wad of cash were overwhelming evidence.
“It all points in one direction: Dealer,” said Larson.
Johnson’s attorney, Scott Lerner of Champaign, argued that his client merely possessed the cocaine for his own use and had no intention of selling it. He also tried to argue that Johnson’s skin cells could have shed onto the gun, accounting for the presence of his DNA.
Johnson has a second unresolved case in which he’s accused of being an armed habitual criminal in May 2021. Larson said he expects to present evidence of that at Johnson’s sentencing.