Evidence Suppressed, Case Dismissed
It is a well known fact of law enforcement. Cops can lie to suspects to get evidence. What they cannot do is lie to a court about how they got they evidence.
Deliberate falsehoods can result in perjury charges. Whatever the consequences for witnesses who give false testimony, falsehoods can cripple a prosecutor’s case. That is what happened when a U.S. District Court decision excluded evidence in a February, 2016 synthetic marijuana case because of police officers’ contradictory and false testimony.
U.S. District Judge John E. Dowdell cited false testimony by Broken Arrow detective Craig Brown and Sapulpa Police Officer Robert Glenn. Broken Arrow detective Michael Jackson also provided testimony during the first day of the hearing that Dowdell said “was in lock step” with a story line the judge simply did not believe.
The false statements Dowdell cited involved denials that police entered a residence before they had a search warrant. Their false testimony brought down the house of cards on which they had obtained the warrant. Whatever evidence they might have gathered could not be presented in court. Prosecutors dismissed the case.
If police had not barged into the house before they got a warrant – then made false statements about it – the court might have considered the premature search a good-faith error. They got a warrant within a couple of hours, albeit on evidence the otherwise zealous officers considered too weak to arrest the driver on the spot.
Had the police officers not made false statements about entering the home before they got a warrant, the court might have believed their claims that the driver consented to a vehicle search. The driver denied giving his consent.
Detectives used the traffic-stop search as a basis for a search warrant at his house. But police did not wait to get a warrant before they entered the home and refused to leave.
Even if the court believed the driver had not consented to the vehicle search, the court might have excused that discrepancy as a good faith error, at least as far as evidence from the house was concerned. Whatever they seized from the house might have been allowed into a trial.
But police made false statements to the court. The court said so.
“As it turns out, all of the government witnesses’ testimony that no one entered the house before 2:31 p.m. was false…” the Judge Dowdell concluded. (Original emphasis).
Because testimony about when they entered the house was false, the court also doubted their claim that the driver had consented to the vehicle search that was the basis for the residential search warrant. The judge excluded all evidence from the vehicle search and the residential search. Here’s how it happened.
Detectives’ ‘Troublesome’ Lack of Candor
The false testimony occurred during the first day of a federal hearing. The defendant’s wife testified that police arrived at her home well before they claimed they arrived with a search warrant. She said she asked for a warrant. They did not show her a warrant. She asked them to leave. They did not.
On the second day of the same hearing, another Broken Arrow officer testified. Traffic Officer John Daniels’ testimony contradicted the claim that police did not enter the house before they had a warrant.
By second day, the Assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecuting the case had advised the court that Daniels and a rookie trainee had entered the house before a warrant was returned. Daniels testified that he followed Brown to the house immediately after the traffic stop. The traffic stop started sometime around 11 a.m. Police said they arrived at the home with a warrant at 2:31 p.m.
Daniels said he entered the house with “a couple of undercover officers,” yet claimed he did not see Brown inside the house until officers returned with a search warrant. His testimony about the early entry was consistent with that of the woman – several officers entered the home, they fanned out throughout the house and some stayed until a search warrant arrived.
The judge said Daniels was “was a generally credible witness,” but noted that Brown’s own testimony contradicted Daniel’s statement that Brown was not among those who first entered the house.
“Brown testified that the officers’ first entry into the house was by Brown knocking on the door,” Judge Dowdell wrote. (Original emphasis.)
In the same paragraph, the federal district judge noted that “it was Brown who ‘reached out’ directly to Daniels between the first and second day of the suppression hearing.”
Witnesses in most criminal proceedings are generally not allowed to hear other witnesses’ testimony. The rule is a systematic way courts try to prevent collusion among witnesses. The pivotal question that came up on the first day was whether any officers had entered the house before the search warrant was issued.
“Brown’s own testimony changed between the first and second day of the hearing.” Judge Dowdell observed.
On the first day, Brown was “unequivocal,” the judge noted – no law enforcement entered the home before they had a warrant and Brown was the first to knock. “I knocked on the door,” Brown had testified.
The next day, the Broken Arrow detective claimed not to recall whether he had knocked on the door. As for other officers, Brown would only testify that “to my knowledge” he did not recall other officers entering before a warrant was issued, although he was “within eye shot of the front door.”
In light of the “demeanor and testimony” of police witnesses, “the Court has serious doubts as to the credibility of much of the law enforcement testimony that was presented during the hearing,” the federal judge concluded.
“One thing was clear from the testimony heard by the Court: law enforcement officers were hell-bent on getting into the defendant’s home on October 7, 2014,” Judge Dowdell wrote. (Original emphasis)
Based on the testimony of the defendant’s wife, who was home when as many as eight officers arrived, along with Daniels’ testimony and with prosecutors – who agreed with her – the judge’s order laid out how events appeared to the court.
Officers were watching the man as part of an ongoing investigation. When he left his home, they conducted a traffic stop and found what they expected to find – packages that looked to them like synthetic marijuana.
Police did not have a field test for synthetic marijuana so they had insufficient probable cause to arrest him at the scene. They let him go. They nonetheless used the untested evidence to get a search warrant.
Immediately after the traffic stop, Brown and several officers who had been watching the house “immediately knocked and made entry into the home.” (Again – original emphasis as the judge italicized the order.)
And, until after the defendant’s wife testified, “all law enforcement witnesses inaccurately and adamantly denied that entry.” (Judge Dowdell’s italics)
Based on the falsehood of police testimony and on federal prosecutors’ recognition of the “troublesome nature” of facts omitted from police reports, the judge discredited police claims that the driver had consented to a vehicle search. He disallowed any evidence gathered during the vehicle search or the residential search.
Bad Faith Undermines Good Faith Exception
Judge Dowdell’s lengthy analysis of the case explained that courts allow considerable latitude for police to use evidence seized in otherwise unlawful searches – when the search was reasonably conducted in good faith. That does not include times when police deliberately conduct a search without a warrant then lie about it.
His order recited the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – the search and seizure clause of the Bill of Rights. He summarized U.S. Supreme Court decisions and 10th Circuit case law about good faith exceptions to search and seizure protections. The ultimate touchstone of Fourth Amendment law is reasonableness, the U.S. Supreme Court has “’repeatedly affirmed.’”
He found no reasonable good faith on which to excuse an unlawful search in this case. An obvious falsehood about barging into a house without a warrant undermines police testimony that a driver consented to a related vehicle search. That quashed the basis for the resulting warrant.
Police officers’ dishonesty on the stand might not bode well for their credibility in other cases, either. To be caught in a lie by a federal judge can be a devastating blow to a law enforcement career. Deliberate false testimony under oath is a crime. It is perjury.
Governments that employ officers who have been caught in a lie can face liability probles if those officers are exposed as dishonest in future cases. Police agencies who rely on the testimony of officers who have been caught lying as witnesses risk having their arrests tossed out of court.
In some cases, officers accused of dishonesty in court might be exonerated, either on appeals of the matter at hand or by some other twist of fate. In this case, according to Judge Dowdell’s record of the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s admission, the government would appear unlikely to further defend the officer’s original version of events. Prosecutors in this case appeared troubled by worse-than-shoddy police work.
In a footnote to his order, Judge Dowdell isolated his doubts about the police witnesses, who were members of a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) task force, from any concern about Assistant U.S. Attorney’s prosecuting the case. When prosecutors learned of inaccuracies in police testimony, they immediately investigated and brought their concerns to the court. At least their careers might be safe from whatever fallout the case produces.
Free Consultation: Criminal Defense Lawyer in Tulsa
For anyone facing criminal charges, or already convicted of criminal charges in matters where officers in this case played a role, the federal court order could have a significant impact. Police are expected to be reliable witnesses. Courts – and juries – take seriously evidence that police have been exposed for presenting false testimony.
If you have been charged with a crime where any of the Broken Arrow or Sapulpa officers in this case investigated or provided testimony, contact a Tulsa criminal defense attorney to discover how the federal decision could affect your case. For a free consultation with a criminal defense attorney in Tulsa, contact Wirth Law Office at (918) 879-1681, or send us your question using the form at the top of this page.