Category Archives: Police

A Real-Time Reminder of the Value of Police Cameras

I was able to get back into a courtroom for a socially distanced trial this week. It was my first since the pandemic hit, and quite a different experience, between physical distancing and the clear face masks that were provided so that we could see the faces of the jurors and the witnesses. We got a not guilty verdict for my client’s DUI, which was a huge win for him, and a relief to be able to move past the case now that it was done. And it was made easier for us since there was no video.
I’ve talked about the failure of many law enforcement agencies to provide regular video recording of their citizen interactions and arrests, including just recently. Many times, the video would assist the government in their prosecution of the case. That’s particularly true in DUI cases, where the only form of proof is the officer’s testimony about their subjective opinion about the performance on field sobriety exercises. Jury’s expect that evidence, and defense attorneys hammer the absence of video (or often, any corroborating evidence to the opinion testimony.)
In my trial this week, there were several jurors that indicated during jury selection that they would WANT to see video evidence. While the ones that said it out loud may have been struck from the panel, there were likely jurors selected that had a similar, unstated desire to see video evidence as well. After all, jurors want as much evidence as possible, and prosecutors want as much evidence to introduce to help prove their case. There’s a concern that a video might not support an officer’s testimony, but if that’s the case, we shouldn’t be prosecuting those cases. For instance, on a DUI case, if the video doesn’t help the impairment case, prosecutors can know which cases should not be taken to trial before they drag a panel full of jurors in for the day, particularly during a pandemic. 
Frequently, there are disputes between different versions of a story by witnesses on a case. Often, there is a discrepancy between what an officer says, and what the Defendant or his witnesses say about the details of a case. I suspect there is a thinking that it is beneficial for law enforcement not to create video, so that it is harder to challenge the officer’s version of events; the reality is that many disputes would be settled by the video. Disputes in evidence lead to more hearings and trials to settle the disputes, where a video is usually the best qualitative evidence that could be presented. The lack of video hurt the state’s prosecution in this case, and I have several other cases that are still pending because we don’t have video to resolve the dispute in facts. 
I feel like I do an “all cops should have videos” blog post nearly annually here, and several of our local agencies have added body cameras (Fort Myers and Cape Coral police both have done so). But the majority of law enforcement officers in Southwest Florida still do not have body or even car cameras. And defense attorneys like myself are going to keep hammering the issue in court, and jurors are going to keep being surprised that videos are not readily available in the year 2020. 

High-Speed Chase ends poorly for Truck and Police Car

Austin Westgate fled a Polk County deputy this weekend, initiating a high speed chase that ended up with his vehicle on top of a deputy’s patrol vehicle. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and deputies were able to arrest the suspect sitting on top of their car.
austin-westgate-1Deputies responded to a possible burglary, and a suspect jumped into the gold truck. He fled, evaded stop sticks, took out some mailboxes and ultimately struck a steel support cable, causing the rear of his vehicle to pop in the air. Deputies arrested the driver, Austin Westgate, and learned he already had an outstanding warrant for fleeing. Suffice to say he took a bad situation and made it much, much worse.

Making the Case for Body-Worn Cameras

I have repeatedly recommended the adoption of body-worn cameras for law enforcement. It’s a win-win situation. There’s never a problem of having too much evidence. Having active cameras can only help get to the truth for police-citizen encounters. The body cameras cut both ways, and do not favor a party who’s statement does not line up with the video… the video favors facts.

Body worn cameras would be beneficial in the recent Los Angeles shooting of Dijon Kizzee. L.A. deputies claim that he dropped a firearm and was picking it up when they shot him. However, they did not have body cameras. The only video was earlier by someone with a camera phone and that footage only shows Kizzee running away. We don’t know what happened that led up to the moment of the shooting, and if deputies had bodycams, that might have given us an answer. It certainly would be beneficial to the Sheriff’s Department if they had body cameras that showed Mr. Kizzee reaching for the weapon. Departments have resisted using body cameras when so often, when the officers are acting appropriately, the cameras would be for their protection. Admittedly, there are flaws: the cameras don’t catch everything, but that’s not a reason not to try to get video.

Sarasota is considering body cameras for their police force. One of the concerns is the expense. The Herald-Tribune ran this editorial last week, arguing that the cost is worth it to acquire body cams. The editorial also ran here in Fort Myers the other day- Fort Myers and Cape Coral do issue body cameras, though the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has not. The Charlotte County Sheriff has recently reconsidered his stance, and will now be seeking body cameras for his department. I applaud this decision and encourage other law enforcement agencies to join CCSO, FMPD, CCPD and many others in outfitting their officers with this important equipment.

Again, be sure to check out the editorial: https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/opinion/editorials/2020/09/15/police-use-force-can-lessened-body-cameras-if-done-right/5790554002/

The FMPD Officer Investigation Continues to Evolve with new Details

fmpd

Fort Myers Police Department

WINK has done some follow-up reporting about the continuing situation with FMPD officers that were suspended after the Freeh Group audit after new details were divulged a few weeks ago. First, WINK has reported that the four officers were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury related to the investigation. None of the officers appeared, which is not surprising as any of their attorneys would have declined to allow them to testify under those circumstances. WINK spoke to Captain Perry’s attorney who said as much, and said that he could not let his client testify when he wasn’t sure any details of the investigation. It was mentioned that the officers received letters, which sounds like they may have been target letters: suggesting they were personally being investigated.

Second, that WINK article included an interview with former acting Chief Eads, who ran the department when the investigation got underway. Eads states that during his time in charge that he did not have any facts presented to him that were actionable. Ultimately, the four officers were suspended when the new chief received the Freeh Group report, and the redacted pages that still have not become public knowledge.

These reports, and those we discussed here before, suggest that the investigation of the officers is intertwined with the federal charges against accused drug trafficker Robert Ward, and to federal informants that were murdered. Ward is accused of murder for his involvement in the death of Kristopher Smith, and the murder of Victor Johnson appears to be related, as well. Detective Matt Sellers, the retired FMPD homicide detective, handled the investigation into the murder of Kristopher Smith. He went on WINK and stated that not only does he believe that the officers were not involved with that murder, but that he has also presented evidence that exonerates them to investigators. That means the Chief at the time, and the lead investigator, are both on record saying that they are unaware of any wrongdoing or connection between these officers and the Smith murder.

The city, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies do not have to release information related to ongoing investigations. It may be years before the public finds out what was really going on at FMPD. The upcoming trial of Robert Ward, who is headed to federal court in Orlando may shed some light on why FMPD suspended the officers. Three of the officers have retired, but one remains on paid leave… three years after the suspensions were handed down. The leave for the officers has totaled over $200,000 and counting, and stands as an expensive unanswered question that even city leaders may be in the dark.

In other FMPD news, more details from the discovery in the case of former Captain Jay Rodriguez have been released. Also, it appears the state is considering additional charges for making a false report (no additional charges have been filed, it’s still in an investigation phase.) Rodriguez filed a report prior to release of the prostitution video that local activist Anthony Thomas tried to extort him for money or he would release the video. Thomas denies the extortion claim, which is now the basis for the false report allegation. Thomas later published the video on Facebook. The alleged extortion attempt supposedly took place when Thomas confronted Rodriguez outside a city council meeting, but there do not appear to be any witnesses. This type of charge is difficult to prove, because it is entirely he said/she said.

Finally, several FMPD officers are under investigation for an altercation that occurred off-duty at a Cape Coral bar the Dixie Roadhouse. Three officers have been placed on administrative leave pending the ongoing investigation. Apparently, the alleged victim was struck in the head with a beer bottle, and the incident was captured on video, which may become public down the road.

More Details Emerge in the Fort Myers Police Internal Investigation

This week marked the third year since an FMPD department audit led to the suspension of four Fort Myers Police Officers. Three of them have since retired, but the fourth is still on paid leave, having been paid nearly $200,000 during his time on leave. The city brought in the Freeh Group to conduct the audit, which suggested possible corruption, and led to a restructuring of the FMPD, but no charges have been filed. Several pages of the report were redacted, and still have not been released to the public. Last week, the city manager told Council there is nothing that can be done while the case remains under FBI investigation, and there’s no telling how long that will take.

However, new reporting from WINK suggest the investigation is related to a federal case against an accused drug trafficker Robert Ward, who has also been charged with ordering the murder of an informant, Kristopher Smith. There is no accusation that the officers are implicated in that informant’s death, which occurred in 2013. But there’s another murdered informant, Victor Johnson, named in the redacted pages. Johnson’s murder occurred in 2016, and an internal affairs investigation was launched about leaks in that investigation. One detective claimed Captain Melvin Perry, one of the suspended officers, was responsible because he had be telling his wife details about the case. Perry’s attorney denies any wrongdoing. Apparently, that detective was counseled for spreading rumors about the other officers.

At this time, no officers have been formally implicated in any wrongdoing. The three that retired did so of their own accord, and the fourth remains on the payroll, with no findings of wrongdoing. It is still very unclear what exactly was going on inside the department at the time, or why the officers were suspended. Three years later, the investigation appears to be ongoing, which precludes the release of much of the information that could shed light behind the curtain at FMPD.

Another Florida Man Arrested for Striking a Dog

Dwayne Croker Jr.

This time in Naples, a man was arrested and charged with striking a police dog. As in the case we reported this morning, a man named Dwayne Croker Jr. was running from the cops for other alleged crimes and got the K-9 released on him. Like our friend from North Fort Myers, he was probably fending off the dog when he hit it. So, instead of getting a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge- he ended up getting three! One for resisting for running from the cops, another for striking the K-9, and he still got the paraphernalia charge. As is so often the case, the cover up is worse than the crime!

I also not the CCSO sent up a helicopter. That’s quite an expense for a couple of misdemeanors, and it was a dog that eventually located and led to his detention. No indications of any injuries on this one.

Florida Man Bites Dog?

Robert Lawrence

A North Fort Myers man was arrested and charged with attacking a police dog, according to NBC-2. I have to say the NBC headline (and mine) are a little misleading… the allegation isn’t that he attacked the police dog per se, but that he forcefully grabbed it. This was after the police had let the dog loose on him, and the dog had bitten his shoulder: sounds like he was trying to stop the dog from attacking him. He had to be taken to the hospital to be treated for his injuries, including the hole in his shoulder and the deputy punching him to let get him to let go of the dog.

NBC-2 Headline

It is a felony to injure a police animal, but a misdemeanor to strike one. This guy, Robert Dean Lawrence, was only charged with the misdemeanor for his actions toward the K-9, “Koa”. However, he’s got bigger problems, as the deputies were after him in the first place for a felony battery charge. He faces charges for felony domestic battery by strangulation, striking a police dog and resisting arrest.

At least he didn’t punch a horse.

Scientists are working on Cannabis testing for Impaired Drivers

weed reefer

Marijuana

States across the country have set a testable limit on the level of alcohol in someone’s bloodstream as a threshold in lieu of demonstrating impairment. While .08 has been established as a baseline legal limit for alcohol, there is no test available to readily measure the amount of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, that is present in someone’s system. CNN.com took a long look at the issue, and at ongoing efforts to create a test similar to the breathalyzers that measure alcohol for purposes of prosecuting DUIs.

It is against the law for anyone to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, even if the drugs have been prescribed. Florida defines under the influence as “under the influence to the extent that normal faculties are impaired,” and other states use similar definitions. That’s why law enforcement use field sobriety exercises: they are meant to give the officers a chance to observe a driver to see if their faculties appear to be impaired. The shortcoming of those tests is their unreliability and that they are subjective: an officer will see impairment if they are looking for it. The breath and blood alcohol tests at least provide some consistency, though they are not impairment based. Time will tell if science can come up with something comparable for THC and other controlled substances.

Reliance on impairment based tests is challenging for law enforcement when a case goes to trial. Unless the impairment is clear, a jury may be reluctant to find it beyond a reasonable doubt. The subjectivity may matter more in a DUI than any other, and the outcome of a DUI is more dependent on the skill of the attorneys trying the case. The ambiguity cuts both ways, because the subjectivity of the field sobriety testing may lead to an arrest, and there is no dispositive scientific test to disprove the allegation. If a cop thinks you are impaired, you can be arrested, and the case may have to go to a jury trial. It will be interesting as this field becomes more important with the expansion of recreational and medicinal marijuana.

Body Cam Footage Released in St. Paul Police Shooting

It’s incidents like these that leave me astounded that not every police and sheriff’s department provides body cams to its officers. A week ago, a St. Paul police officer shot and killed Ronald Davis, who the officer said had attacked him after Davis rammed the officer’s patrol car. Protesters took to the streets to call for justice, though dispatch audio indicated the officer shouting “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!” It was poised to be another touchpoint for a story about a black man being killed by a police officer, and several people claimed they didn’t believe the official story that Davis had a knife.

The video was released Tuesday, and it’s dramatic. The officer gets out of his car after he’s struck, and is immediately set upon by Davis. The video shows Davis attacking the officer, knife in hand, knocking him to the ground. The officer gets up and tries to get away, with Davis continuing to pursue him. The officer shouts for him to drop the knife, and ultimately fires when he fails to comply. The video shows that the officer had a grave reason to fear for his safety, and conclusively shows that his actions were justified. Why Davis attacked him is unclear, and the loss of life is certainly a tragedy, but the video gives a lot more insight into what happened, and prevents a false narrative from going any further. I would urge all law enforcement agencies to follow this practice, and supply body cams and other recording devices for officers.

You can watch the video but are forewarned that it is violent and contains mature content:

 

The Dallas DA did an Interview, in Spite of a Gag Order, and the Judge Couldn’t Stand it

Amber Guyger

I should really say the judge couldn’t sit for it, because when she heard the DA had done an interview the night before the trial, she literally couldn’t stay in her chair. The judge is presiding over the Dallas trial of the former police officer Amber Guyger, who went into the wrong apartment apparently thinking it was her own, and shot the resident. The defense is arguing mistake of fact, and it appears they are claiming Guyger was distracted by sexy texts with her partner around the time she entered the incorrect apartment. There was some controversy, as she was initially charged with manslaughter, which is not the correct charge, since she definitely intended to shoot Mr. Jean. The new DA upped the charges to murder, and then couldn’t stop himself from talking to the media on the eve of trial.

Botham Jean

The case is a clear tragedy. While Ms. Gugyer was a cop, she was not on the job. It is indisputed that Mr. Jean was not in the wrong- it was his apartment. Not only that, he was a leader in his church and community. It will be up to a jury to decide if her mistake of fact was reasonable, so as to excuse her grave mistake of killing an unarmed black man in his own home. That’s a tough sell for the defense.

Here’s a story about the judge presiding over the case, and her reaction: