Federal judges sound alarm about cases from W. Virginia drug task force

Law enforcement personnel investigate an incident  in Austin
REUTERS/Loren Elliott
  • Judge Goodwin’s ruling
  • 4th Circuit Ruling
  • Southern District of West Virginia ruling

(Reuters) - A federal judge recently criticized law enforcement and the court system in Charleston, West Virginia, in a remarkable decision upholding a finding that police didn't tell the truth when obtaining a search warrant for a suspected drug dealer’s home.

The Feb. 22 ruling by Judge Joseph Goodwin included unusually strong condemnation of federal prosecutors’ and local magistrate judges’ conduct, in addition to a multi-agency drug enforcement task force.

In another sense, though, Goodwin’s ruling was entirely unsurprising.

Goodwin, in fact, has criticized the practices of the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network (MDENT) in particular in at least three other decisions since 2017, a review of court records shows. The MDENT is composed of officers from agencies including the Charleston Police and Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the state police.

The judge tossed out evidence in a drug case last year, holding that the Charleston Police, MDENT, and a Kanawha County magistrate had again failed to respect constitutional limits on searches and seizures. The MDENT’s warrant was based on “unsourced and undescribed” information that someone was selling drugs and the discovery of three marijuana stems in the trash from that person’s home – which the judge said was clearly insufficient.

“I fear this is becoming a pattern,” Goodwin wrote on April 28, 2021, pointing to a similar ruling in another MDENT case from a week earlier.

The MDENT has also been admonished for what courts described as open and purposeful disregard of the legal limits on searches and seizures by at least one other judge of the Southern District of West Virginia, and in a unanimous opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford told me his agency wasn’t directly involved in the relevant cases. The DEA and the Charleston Police Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Those recent federal court decisions point to a potential pattern of abusive policing within the MDENT, especially in light of a history of serious misconduct among similar narcotics task forces and specialized units. Taken together, the decisions paint a damning picture: task force officers who often profile residents, and conduct sloppy or outright illegal investigations; magistrates functioning largely as rubber stamps on resulting warrant applications; and prosecutors who follow through on cases based on illegally-seized evidence.

Goodwin wrote that police, prosecutors and judges “abdicate the responsibilities imbued by their oaths of office” when they overlook or fail to intervene in "Constitutional failures" by police.

A representative in Goodwin's chambers declined a request for comment.

The apparent pattern of unlawful practices at MDENT isn't unique. Narcotics task forces and other specialized police units have a history of widespread misconduct and deliberate indifference to the law, including violent crimes.

The Texas Observer reported on some of that history as a similar scandal played out in the state in 2005. And a column in the Washington Post in July 2017 listed a series of incidents of misconduct and over-aggressive policing by task forces, including incidents where people were killed.

In the most notable recent scandal, members of a Baltimore Police Department gun-crime task force were charged with transforming their unit and the department itself into a racketeering enterprise. An independent review revealed that Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force was little more than a roving crew of armed robbers masquerading as cops – sworn officers targeting drug-dealing suspects and random taxpayers alike for robberies, on and off the clock, according to the report released in January.

A 2016 investigation into a New Orleans-based task force found federal officers had participated in drug dealing and had stolen money during raids, the New Orleans Advocate reported in a July 2017 article.

In 1999, 39 Black people were arrested in Tulia, Texas, for selling drugs based entirely on a task force cop's fabricated testimony, as recounted in a PBS documentary that aired in 2009. Convictions against the defendants were later thrown out and the government disbanded the task force and paid a $5 million settlement, according to a New York Times report in March 2004.

Nearly the same exact story played out in Hearne, Texas, a year later, in 2000, according to a April 2005 report by the Texas Observer. That incident is the subject of the 2008 film American Violet.

The conduct described in the West Virginia opinions is certainly not as corrupt as in some past scandals. Still, a culture of disregard for rights of residents, especially the poor and people of color, underlies many instances of systemic abuse by task forces.

In one case, an MDENT officer secretly placed a GPS tracker on a car while the driver was being issued a misdemeanor citation by another MDENT cop. Officers admitted that they knew they needed a warrant beforehand, although they had applied for it afterward.

In another, a DEA task force officer got a warrant and began surveilling a man’s apartment because an unidentified source told him that a Black guy moved in and people made short visits to the residence, according to the February 2021 opinion. The officers' warrant application listed the incorrect address, and initially identified the wrong person as a suspect.

The court said that kind of a “tip” should have raised red flags because it suggests the suspicion is based on "an assumption that a Black man is a criminal."

Goodwin said in his opinion that U.S. Attorney William Thompson in Charleston, should review the “unusual” number of recent decisions in his district in which judges threw out evidence that was unlawfully seized.

Thompson declined to comment on most of the issues raised in Goodwin’s opinion, noting that the case against defendant Che Lark remains pending.

I asked Thompson whether his offices would undertake such an analysis as suggested by Goodwin.

A spokesperson said Thompson conducted a thorough review of policies upon taking office in October 2021 and “implemented a new process for reviewing search warrant applications” even “prior to the order in the Lark case.”

The office has reviewed Goodwin's order and “takes the court’s concerns seriously,” the spokesperson said.

To my mind, the series of recent decisions throwing out evidence are themselves a signal that the new processes may not be sufficient, and they make the case for federal authorities to take a larger role in preventing patterns of unconstitutional policing.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com