Crime Scenes: Police integrity at issue in drug arrest

Officers held accountable for past transgressions; drug arrest thrown out by court

December 18, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A cop's word is everything.

One poor performance in court can haunt an officer's career — and put suspected drug dealers back onto the city streets.

Back in 2003, Detective Thomas E. Wilson III ran into a federal judge who was not happy with his testimony. The judge took him to task in open court, calling the officer's account of a drug bust "implausible and incredibly presented," and threw out a case built around cache of drugs worth $200,000.

U.S. District Judge Andre Davis called the affidavit filed by Wilson filled with "knowing lies."

The judge's stinging words haunt Wilson to this day.

Maryland's second-highest court ruled this month that a defense attorney acted appropriately in a 2008 trial when he used Davis' words to hammer away at Wilson's credibility and call into question another drug arrest.

The same court ruled that the prosecutor overstepped legal boundaries while defending Wilson from the defense lawyer's questions. The judges deemed her statements — calling Wilson honorable and insisting that he was "telling the truth" — had unfairly influenced the jury into convicting the suspect.

Result: The conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered.

Dealing with cops of questionable character has been a source of controversy for years and has led to disputes between Baltimore's police commissioner and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who is leaving office next month after losing an election to Gregg Bernstein.

Prosecutors keep a so-called "do not call list" of cops who cannot or should not testify in court. Officers who have been convicted of crimes are on the list, but so are officers who have not been found guilty — administratively or criminally — of anything, and who the department believes are perfectly acceptable even though prosecutors think otherwise.

Being barred from the witness stand can effectively ruin the career of a police officer, who would not be able to get any arrests to stand up in court. Bernstein, an ally of the police commissioner, has criticized the list and said he would work with police to deal with each case as it arises.

How would he deal with a cop like Wilson, who wasn't even on the do-not-call list but still finds himself in trouble over his past?

Let's go back to 2003, when the detective was testifying in U.S. District Court in front of Davis on a drug seizure that began with the arrest of a single dealer on a street corner. Wilson had said in his report that his investigation was based on anonymous complaints over the course of the first week of October, that he had seen a drug deal from a covert position and that he saw the purchaser run away.

But Wilson testified in front of Davis that his investigation was based on a single tip the same day as the arrest. He said he and other detectives had been on a sidewalk, not hiding, and that the purchaser had walked away instead of running.

In unusually blunt criticism in open court, the judge asked, "How could it be that a narrative so implausible, and so implausible and incredibly presented, might be accepted by the court?"

Davis, frustrated by a series of police missteps at the time, said, "The community is entitled to a higher level of performance, to a higher level of professionalism. … They're fumbling and bumbling, and they don't understand the law. They don't understand the Constitution. They don't understand the limits that the law places upon them."

The judge threw out the arrest and dismissed the charges before the case could even reach trial.

Baltimore police disciplined Wilson for neglect of duty, stripped him of five days' pay and ordered him to remedial training. His attorney said the administrative trial board did not convict Wilson of an integrity violation.

In July 2008, Wilson and his partner, Isaac Carrington, arrested Bryan Sivells at 20th and Boone streets after watching what they concluded was a hand-to-hand drug transaction with a woman they heard asking for "some ready," a term for crack cocaine. They seized 13 baggies of the drug hidden in the suspect's right sock.

It was a routine drug bust and a routine trial — until Sivells' attorney got Wilson on the witness stand in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Louis Curran quickly brought up Judge Davis.

"Do you recall the uncomfortable experience?" Curran said to Wilson.

As the jury listened, the detective and lawyer sparred for the better part of three hours. Curran portrayed Wilson as a liar, and Wilson countered that he was telling the truth — this time as well as in 2003. He said in 2003 he got mixed up on some small details, but did not fabricate what he had seen.

In the current case, Curran questioned Wilson about why he didn't arrest a woman he said he saw buy drugs from his client, or at the very least get her name for the report. Curran concluded that Wilson had simply made her up, that the drug deal had never occurred.

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