Federal judge seeks review of cases over evidence concerns

REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
  • West Virginia judge questions prosecution and law enforcement conduct
  • Says prosecutor's responsibility in system "transcends the role of adversary"

(Reuters) - A federal judge has asked the new U.S. attorney in Charleston, West Virginia, to review what the court described as an "unusual" number of judicial decisions in recent years that said evidence was seized unlawfully and can't be used at trial.

West Virginia U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin's ruling on Feb. 22 criticized law enforcement and prosecution conduct in a drug case in which he found a search violated a man's rights. At the same time, he suggested U.S. Attorney William Thompson, appointed by President Joe Biden last year, conduct a review of recent suppression rulings, which the judge called an "area of concern."

Goodwin rejected a request from the U.S. attorney's office to rescind an earlier finding that a detective made statements "in reckless disregard of the truth."

Goodwin, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton who has served on the trial bench since 1995, used the ruling to address "protecting the integrity of our criminal justice system." Federal prosecutors, the judge wrote, are "taught that the prosecutor's role transcends the role of adversary."

"When prosecutors overlook, tolerate, or fail to intervene in the Constitutional failures of law enforcement, they abdicate the responsibilities imbued by their oaths of office," Goodwin wrote.

He deferred to Thompson, a former West Virginia state judge, to review the "number of suppression motions that have been granted in this district in the past two years."

A spokesperson for the Charleston U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on Tuesday. A prosecutor assigned to the case did not return a message seeking comment.

Goodwin, through his chambers, declined to comment.

In December, Goodwin issued an order suppressing evidence seized from a house in 2021. The judge questioned the accuracy of certain statements made by law enforcement in an affidavit to obtain a search warrant of the defendant's house. The government has since filed a new indictment.

After the judge issued the suppression order, the U.S. attorney's office sent two investigators to interview the state magistrate judge who issued the search warrant. Goodwin said it was "improper" for investigators to seek such an interview and for the judge to entertain it.

"It is inherently intimidating to send federal officers to question a state magistrate judge," Goodwin wrote, "and it is clearly out of bounds for the magistrate judge to provide the interview regarding his judicial decision-making in a matter pending before this court."

A trial in the case is scheduled for May.

The case is United States v. Lark, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, No. 2:21-cr-00084.

For the government: Steven Loew of the Justice Department

For the defense: John Balenovich

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