By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Dec. 15, 2010
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett tossed out evidence in a gun case Dec. 6 because, as he wrote in his opinion, the testimony of the Baltimore police officers who arrested the defendant “simply strains credulity.” In September, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz did the same in a heroin case.
In both instances, the evidence was obtained as a result of traffic stops for minor infractions, and was at issue during motions hearings at which the arresting officers testified. In both cases, the officers’ credibility did not survive scrutiny, raising questions about the efficacy of the police practice of using minor traffic violations as a pretext for going after major crimes.
The most recent case charged Travis Gaines with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gaines was arrested in January near Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street by three members of the Central District Operations Unit: Jimmy Shetterly, Frank Schneider, and Manuel Moro, according to Bennett’s written opinion. Two of them were allegedly assaulted by Gaines after one of them patted him down and found a gun in his waistband. The problem, Bennett wrote, was the officers’ reason for pulling over the car in which Gaines was a passenger: that they saw a crack in its windshield.
“This Court does not believe it was possible for the police officers to see the crack in the windshield,” Bennett wrote, so “the gun must be suppressed as the fruit of the illegal stop”—despite Gaines’ alleged assault of the officers, since it occurred after the unlawful search. The “gun was discovered before the assault, and the fact that Mr. Gaines engaged in allegedly unlawful behavior after the discovery of the gun does not expunge the government’s unlawful conduct in making an illegal traffic stop” (emphasis in the original).
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says his office is “reviewing the case and there is a strong probability that we will appeal” Bennett’s ruling. In the second case—against Stephen Chester, who was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin—Rosenstein’s office did not appeal Motz’s ruling to throw out the government’s evidence, but instead opted to dismiss the charges against Chester.
Motz did not issue a written opinion in Chester’s case. But the courtroom drama exposing the false testimony of the police who took the stand during the motions hearing is reflected in the transcript.
During the Aug. 31 hearing, two Baltimore Police detectives—Timothy Stach and Jamal Harris—testified that they and other officers pulled over Chester’s car on April 16, 2009, in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, because they saw he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt; and that they flashed their unmarked police vehicles’ lights as they conducted the traffic stop so that the defendant would know they were police. Yet, on cross examination, defense attorney Chris Nieto of the Office of the Federal Public Defender played video footage of the stop, which convinced Motz that the detectives’ version of events was false.
“I think that the video speaks for itself,” Motz said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Celeste at the end of the hearing, as he granted the defense motion. It’s “a scenario where there’s certainly a reasonable inference that Mr. Chester thought he was being robbed. And that sort of makes . . . your case fall apart.”
It is “rare” for evidence to be thrown out in federal cases, Rosenstein says, because “these cases are carefully reviewed” by his office before they are charged. Prosecutors first sift through the police reports and then they “meet with the police officers face-to-face and interview them about the facts,” a process that “screens out potential problems.” But it is still “possible that new evidence might come up, and that’s what happened in the Chester case.”
“The video,” Rosenstein adds, “shows that [the police detectives’] testimony is incorrect.” While he declined to comment specifically about any repercussions from the Chester case, he says “whenever there are concerns about officers’ credibility, we discuss it with departmental officials.”
Baltimore Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi says “we obviously take extremely seriously” any instance when police credibility on the witness stand is found lacking, and such cases are “normally referred to internal investigations” to probe whether or not disciplinary proceedings are in order. Because Bennett’s ruling in the Gaines case happened only recently, Guglielmi was not in a position to discuss the status or existence of such a probe. By press time, he had not produced any information about any repercussions for the officers who testified in the Chester case.
As for the practice of pulling people over for traffic violations in pursuit of larger crimes, Rosenstein says “as a police tactic, it is useful. A lot of times, all it results in is a traffic citation. But in other cases, the result is a major arrest for drugs or guns. It is part of [a police officer’s] job to stop people for traffic violations,” he adds, and the tactic “is accepted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court as good police work.”
But the defense attorneys for Gaines and Chester say it comes with a price—the confidence and trust regular, law-abiding citizens place in their law enforcers.
“For every suspect traffic stop that results in the recovery of contraband,” Nieto says, “there are countless more involving law-abiding citizens whose rights are violated when they are pulled over, removed from their cars, and searched for no reason.” Those instances don’t receive public attention because “the people involved are never charged with a crime.” Yet, Nieto continues, “These citizens are the same people that sit on our city juries, who hear Baltimore City officers testify, and are asked to believe every word they say. It surprises me that prosecutors and the police department don’t understand that it is this type of bullying that contributes to our city’s juries being so skeptical and distrusting of Baltimore City police.”
Nieto’s colleague in the public defender’s office, Joseph Evans, who represented Gaines, adds, “The larger point is that people are beginning to realize that this is very counterproductive. It generates disrespect for the law and law enforcement and creates a lot of antagonism in African-American communities in particular against law enforcement. And this is actually a shame.”