Trucker Gurpreet Singh hasn’t been back home in Canada since June 13. That morning just before 4 a.m., he pulled his carrier’s tractor-trailer into an inspection lane at the Peace Bridge U.S. border crossing in Buffalo, New York. He presented his paperwork to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and said he was hauling a load of peat moss to Virginia. A secondary inspection later revealed over 3,000 pounds of suspected marijuana worth $5 million.
“Did you find drugs in there?” Singh asked CBP officers after they handcuffed him, according to an affidavit by a Homeland Security Investigations agent filed in federal court in June.
Unable to reach Singh that day, his family grew increasingly concerned. His ex-wife reported him missing to local police in Canada, according to documents filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. They learned the next day that he’d been arrested.
Singh, a driver for Canadian carrier Trans King at the time, was arrested amid a flurry of drug seizures from Canadian trucks at the U.S. border since it closed for nonessential travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most have occurred at the Peace Bridge.
Driver enlists high-profile attorney to fight charges
More than three months later, Singh’s lawyers, prominent criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria and Justin Ginter, are seeking his release from U.S. federal custody as his case moves toward a possible trial. His family and friends have raised $100,000 as a proposed bail, according to a Sept. 21 court filing.
“Mr. Singh’s family and friends are not wealthy individuals,” Ginter wrote in the filing. “They have used their savings and taken out loans to be able to raise this amount. Mr. Singh would not place his family and friends in a position where they could lose their life savings by failing to return to Court.”
Cambria and Ginter did not respond to FreightWaves’ request for comment. But the retention of Cambria, in particular, suggests the trucker intends to mount a vigorous defense. An established Buffalo-area criminal defense attorney, Cambria is better known for celebrity clients including pornography magnate Larry Flynt and wrapper DMX.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to keep Singh in custody. They allege that he was a knowing participant in a drug-trafficking operation and that he presents a flight risk if allowed to return to Canada, where he is a permanent resident. They point to his Indian citizenship and his ties there, including his wife.
“And there will be very little we can do to stop him. Nothing. Especially without any ability to supervise him from the U.S. Probation Office,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Adler said during a July hearing.
In June, a judge agreed to release Singh on $31,000 bail provided by his father in India. The amount was lower than the $100,000 initially proposed.
Prosecutors got the ruling reversed but are still seeking to keep Singh in custody even with the higher bail.
The amount of marijuana in Singh’s case, while considerable, wasn’t the largest seizure from a tractor-trailer at the U.S.-Canada border over the summer. CBP officers intercepted a $20 million load, also at the Peace Bridge. Federal prosecutors dropped the charges against the driver in that case, who maintained he had no knowledge of the marijuana in his sealed trailer.
A suspicious load of peat moss at the Peace Bridge
The CBP officer who first encountered Singh at the inspection lane had suspicions about the driver and his load, according to the complaint by the HSI agent. The CBP officer learned through an internet search that the consignee in Virginia for the peat moss was closed on the day Singh said he planned to deliver it, according to the complaint.
Adding to the officer’s suspicions: Another Trans King driver had been arrested less than two weeks earlier at the same border crossing after 1,700 pounds of marijuana was found in a trailer, according to the complaint. The officer decided to send Singh and his tractor-trailer for a secondary inspection.
CBP officers found over 3,300 pounds of marijuana behind a legitimate load of peat moss, the complaint states.
Court documents: Trucker cooperated after marijuana seizure, then asked for a lawyer
Singh initially agreed to cooperate with investigators after the discovery of the marijuana, according to the complaint. He told investigators that another driver from his carrier was present when he picked up his tractor-trailer, and that he was directed to pick up the manifest from the owner’s house, according to the complaint.
As investigators spoke to the trucker, a search of his phone revealed a series of short calls and missed calls, according to the complaint. Singh explained that some of the calls had come from the fellow driver at his carrier’s yard, while the others he said he could not explain, the complaint stated.
Singh also agreed to place monitored phone calls to both numbers in the presence of the investigators but changed his mind and asked for a lawyer, according to the complaint.
Trans King’s owner did not respond to a voicemail left by FreightWaves. But at a July hearing, Adler, the assistant U.S. attorney, said the tractor trailer had been reported stolen and that the owner had said Singh had been making an unauthorized trip at the time.
What the trucker said to CBP looms large in marijuana case
No trial date has been set, and much of the evidence prosecutors have assembled is covered by a protective order. But based on the court documents made public and hearings over the summer, a central question is whether Singh’s statement — “Did you find drugs in there?” — amounts to an admission of guilt.
The federal prosecutor in the case pointed to the original seal placed by the peat moss shipper as further evidence of guilt. Singh’s then-attorney noted that the trailer did have a seal — just not the original.
“That doesn’t mean Mr. Singh sealed it,” defense attorney Jermy Schwartz said during a July hearing.
Trailer seals can be a very important factor in cross-border smuggling cases. The presence of an original seal on a load can help establish where contraband was loaded, and potentially absolve a trucker of wrongdoing.
Whether Singh will be able to return to Canada pending a trial remains to be seen. The judge has yet to decide on the latest bail proposal.