By Sarah Pridgeon
A Chicago man will serve up to 30 months in jail after being found guilty of possession of marijuana. Chengzhao Zhang was arrested on December 29, 2016 after being pulled over for traveling at almost 30 mph over the speed limit on Hwy 212; inconsistencies in his travel plans led to 40 pounds of marijuana being found in his rental car.
Just after 6:30 p.m., a State Highway Patrol trooper observed a vehicle traveling at an estimated 73 mph in a 45 mph zone. The vehicle continued to gain speed as it came down the hill, reaching 76 mph before it began to slow down despite the trooper activating his overhead emergency lights.
On stopping, the driver advised that the car was a rental and produced both the agreement and his Illinois driver license. The driver, Zhang, claimed to be traveling back home from Yellowstone.
The trooper noticed a backpack and two large suitcases and believed this to be an excessive amount of luggage for a single occupant. Both cases appeared brand new.
Zhang allegedly explained that he had been speeding because he did not see the sign reducing the speed limit to 45 mph. The trooper questioned his travel plans on seeing that the car had been rented in Belgrade, Montana on December 29 and was due back in Chicago on December 31.
Zhang allegedly hesitated before claiming he flew into Seattle to meet a friend, then rented the car and was driving home. The trooper read Zhang his Miranda rights based on observations that suggested he was involved in criminal activity: the excessive amount of time to stop the vehicle, the upgraded SUV rental for a single occupant, the large amount of luggage and the fact that the luggage was new. The timeframe and purpose of the trip were also incompatible, as most of Yellowstone was at that time unavailable to wheeled vehicles and a guided tour would not have been available within the stated timeframe.
The trooper also noted that Zhang could have met his friend in Bozeman or Billings rather than flying to Seattle and backtracking. There was also no reason to rent a car to drive home rather than purchase a round-trip ticket. The trooper was able to locate another rental agreement with Hertz that showed Zhang traveling by rental car from Bozeman to Minneapolis in August and suspected he had exchanged rental cars numerous times to blend in with local traffic.
The vehicle was towed to the WYDOT shop in Sundance and 40 pounds of marijuana was discovered inside in small packages. Zhang was charged with one felony count of possession and has been sentenced to between 15 and 30 months in jail with 197 days already served.