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Cascade of Overturned Cases May Emerge In Wake of Philly DA’s ‘Bad Cop’ List

The shadows of Philadelphia Police officers
Corey Perrine / Getty Images

Cascade of Overturned Cases May Emerge In Wake of Philly DA’s ‘Bad Cop’ List

In 2012, Gilbert Narvaez was convicted on drug-dealing charges and sent to a Pennsylvania prison for a three- to eight-year sentence. Narvaez maintained his innocence and argued that he was the victim of a bad cop named Christopher Hulmes, who claimed that in 2011 he had seen Narvaez in Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood peddling narcotics.

“He was just standing on the corner,” said Narvaez’s lawyer, Christopher Jay Evarts. Narvaez told the Philadelphia City Paper that he bumped into a friend, who he suggested was likely dealing drugs, and stopped to chat. But the word of a young man with a rap sheet, who has admitted to drug dealing in the past, didn’t hold up against an officer with the Philadelphia Police Department.

Unbeknownst to Narvaez at the time of his conviction, however, Hulmes had openly admitted to committing perjury in an unrelated case in 2011. This should have caused the officer to be criminally charged and banned from providing testimony in court. But the Philadelphia Police Department allowed Hulmes to continue making arrests, and the district attorney at the time, Seth Williams, who is now serving a five-year federal prison sentence for accepting a bribe from a local businessman, continued to call him to the witness stand. A 2014 investigation in City Paper (now defunct) exposed the perjury incident, and ultimately Hulmes was forced to resign but spared a criminal conviction.

After Hulmes’s perjury was revealed, Narvaez’s lawyer petitioned the court to have his client’s conviction thrown out. On May 14, 2015, Narvaez’s conviction was overturned. But during Narvaez’s more than two years of imprisonment, he missed his baby daughter grow into a toddler — he will never get that time back.

Narvaez’s case is one of over a hundred cases involving Officer Hulmes that have been thrown out by Philadelphia courts since 2014, according to Bradley Bridge, the attorney in charge of police misconduct at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. And there could be more, Bridge said, because his office is still in the process of unraveling Hulmes’s dubious legacy.

The discovery of one bad cop, especially if their misdeeds were known by prosecutors yet hidden from defense attorneys, can result in a cascade of dismissed cases. In December, Deborah Katz Levi, the head of the Baltimore City Public Defender Special Litigation Section, said that she identified 2,000 cases that she described as “irreparably tainted” because of their connection to the corrupt Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force which saw eight of its nine members indicted in federal court (six later entered guilty pleas and two were convicted at trial).

In Philadelphia, the previous district attorney, Williams, did little to root out police misconduct. But in January, Larry Krasner, a long-time civil rights attorney, was sworn in as the city’s new DA after a campaign in which he promised major criminal justice reforms, including tackling police misconduct. Krasner’s promises, however, face a significant challenge: a police disciplinary system that rarely punishes officers for misconduct that has allowed a large number of cops with questionable records to continue to make arrests, about which they ultimately may have to testify in court.

The scope of Krasner’s challenge was highlighted last month when, under court order, he released a “do not call” list, compiled by Williams’s office, comprising 66 officers who the Police Board of Inquiry said had committed misconduct, including brutality, drinking on duty, and lying to investigators. The “do not call” list was compiled in March 2017 by top aides to former DA Williams. Of those who have been publicly named, only one is still working in the DA’s office, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. About half of the officers on the list appear to still be on the force; nine are on active duty and collectively made 41 arrests last year. In the past five years, the 29 officers restricted from taking the witness stand have made more than 800 arrests.

In reality, the “do not call” list is a misnomer: The list either instructed prosecutors to seek a top official’s approval before allowing 29 officers to take the stand, or, in the case of other listed officers, to allow them to testify but disclose their record to defense attorneys, or for the prosecutor to simply be aware of the misconduct. Instead of barring the 29 officers from taking the stand, prosecutors simply dismissed cases to ensure that the officers did not do so, according to the Inquirer. Yet there are “thousands” of possible cases involving officers on the entire list, says Bridge. He and his colleagues are in the process of reviewing them, and potentially asking that they be thrown out.

Officer Hulmes, however, was not on the list. This is likely because Williams limited it to officers with recent misconduct findings. Neither were any of the six Narcotics Field Unit officers charged and later acquitted in federal court in 2015 in a high-profile corruption and brutality case — save for one, Michael Spicer. Over 1,000 cases involving these cops — as well as a seventh officer, Jeffrey Walker, who pleaded guilty in federal court to robbing a drug dealer and testified against his former colleagues — have been thrown out since Bridge started filing petitions to have cases that depended on these officers’ testimony tossed in 2015. The “do not call” list, then, represents just the tip of the iceberg of police misconduct in Philadelphia. When the entirety of the problem is fully exposed, the number of convictions subject to dismissal could become enormous.

By law, prosecutors are required to disclose all evidence that might be favorable to a defendant under the “Brady rule,” named after a 1963 Supreme Court case that enshrined this obligation, Brady v. Maryland. This includes information that the DA has on any arresting or testifying officers’ history of infractions that may undermine their credibility as a witness. Perhaps the most high-profile case of police misconduct in Philadelphia involves the rapper Meek Mill, or Robert Williams, who has most recently been jailed since Nov. 6, 2017 for violating the terms of his probation, which stemmed from his conviction on charges following a controversial 2007 drug and gun arrest by Reginald Graham, an officer who was on the “do not call” list. Mill has violated probation several times over the years, first in 2011 for opioid use. This is the second time he has been jailed for breaking the rules of probation. In a March 14 response to Williams’s Motion for Stay and Bail Pending Consideration For Post Conviction Relief, Krasner’s office admitted that “[A]t some point prior to 2018, the Commonwealth because aware of some issues or conduct bearing on the credibility of Officer Graham, yet there is no indication this material was timely given to the Court or Petitioner.”

Similarly, Bridge argues that prosecutors violated the Brady rule years ago, when Hulmes’ perjury was disclosed in 2011. “It was incumbent on the prosecutor to either nolle pros all subsequent cases, or at a minimum to notify the defense,” he said.

Indeed, the entire “do not call” list should have been made available to defense attorneys, said Philadelphia-based civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, who specializes in police misconduct. Even if prosecutors didn’t allow the 29 “do not call” officers to take the stand, the 37 on the list who were not restricted from testifying were still found to have committed misconduct. “We don’t know the extent of it, but for sure there were a category of cases where the DA knew we had a problematic police officer and [the DA] called him anyway,” Rudovsky said.

Ironically, Williams’s “do not call” list was a belated effort to deal with the mounting issue of police misconduct. For years, it was difficult to determine what a cop could do to get taken off the street or criminally charged. In 2010, Philadelphia police officer Eric Burke developed a reputation for stomping on civilians’ heads. In a rare move, Internal Affairs sustained excessive force findings against Burke but his punishment was merely a written “reprimand.” Burke left the force in May 2016 for reasons that the police department declined to specify. In 2015, the six narcotics officers in the Narcotics Field Unit scandal were reinstated through arbitration after being acquitted in federal court of charges related to allegations that they had systematically beaten and robbed drug suspects. In 2016, Officer Hulmes, exposed for committing and admitting to perjury, avoided prosecution by agreeing to a pretrial diversion program and agreeing to never try to re-enter the force.

So, the creation of the “do not call” list was a make-do solution to police misconduct that failed to get at the heart of the problem and only compounded the Brady issues related to the list. As civil rights attorney Rudovsky noted, the list should have been shared with defense attorneys in pretrial discovery.

Krasner’s office is still determining its procedures regarding the disclosure of information about police misconduct to defense attorneys. “We are currently hard at work at disclosing more information and trying to have a solid system for gathering, storing and providing information that rises to the level of Brady about police,” Krasner told The Appeal. His spokesperson, Ben Waxman, said the office will have an upgraded “do not call list” by mid-May.

Still, Krasner’s office is in a bind: If a broken police department disciplinary system keeps putting bad cops back on the street, those officers could make arrests and their testimony might then be necessary in criminal trials. The DA’s office, after all, does not control the police department.

There are, however, concrete actions that Krasner’s office could take. One would be ensuring his office has access to Internal Affairs investigations and findings, as well as to decisions made by the Police Board of Inquiry, and a system within the DA’s office to make use of that information. Another possibility is “open-file discovery,” which provides defense attorneys access to prosecutors’ case files. As it stands, prosecutors privately make the decision of what evidence must be turned over pursuant to Brady — and thus fail to disclose a lot, as evidenced by the “do not call” list having been kept secret. Krasner can also prosecute police when they commit crimes, something that has been rare in the past.

“You can provide much needed support to reform police commissioners who want the system to be right,” Krasner said, “but who have been undermined by local prosecutors more interested in pandering to the police union for their own political ambitions than interested in having the police department be trusted and integrous. Another thing you can do is charge police officers who commit a crime instead of looking the other way.”

As Reform Stalls in New York, Defendants Plead Out Because They Can’t Afford Cash Bail

As Reform Stalls in New York, Defendants Plead Out Because They Can’t Afford Cash Bail

At the beginning of the year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out a plan that would eliminate cash bail for those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Last week, however, his plan stalled out during budget negotiations with state legislative leaders. For bail reform advocates, including public defenders and advocates for incarcerated people, the plan’s failure serves as a bitter reminder of how difficult it is to eliminate cash bail, despite overwhelming support to do so.

In the month leading up to budget negotiations, advocates organized a series of rallies highlighting the cascading consequences of cash bail, from plea deals taken by innocent defendants who can’t afford to wait for a trial, to dangerously crowded jails filled with those who didn’t have enough money to purchase their freedom. So, the Legal Aid Society, a New York City-based not-for-profit organization providing free legal services to low-income individuals and families, has been collecting stories of defendants held on cash bail who have taken plea deals even while they maintain their innocence so that they can be released from jail.

“The courts put you in a circumstance where the offer they’ll put before you, weather [sic] evidence proves you innocent or not, will be an offer that automatically allows you to once more be free to return back to your family & loved ones,” wrote one defendant, identified as W.F., who took a plea deal in 2017, in a letter provided to The Appeal by Legal Aid.

“So for that you’ll just bite the bullet & go with the best offer for a plea of guilty, even if knowing your [sic]innocent.”

W.F. further explained his predicament — “I’m a father of 4, an[d] only collect SSI Disability,” and that, with a bail set at $25,000, “there’s no way I could afford to take that money out of my kid’s mouth and still consider myself a decent man who will put his kids & their well-being first.”

W.F.’s story is indicative of a system that punishes the poor and favors prosecutors at every turn. Without using high cash bail as leverage, prosecutors would have to take many more cases to trial — more than 98 percent of felony arrests that end in convictions occur through a guilty plea, not a trial — and be obligated to provide tangible evidence against defendants.

“While I was fighting my case, I felt like I never had a chance,” wrote R.I., a defendant whose family raised money for over one year to bail him out. “The state was upset that I raised enough money to bail out. They were trying everything in their power to get the judge to take my bail away. I just couldn’t understand why they would do that.” The problem, wrote another defendant named T.S., has “always been a system where bails are set as ransoms, so not to allow people back into society.”

In recent weeks, both the New York City Bar Association and the State Justice Task Force, which was tasked with reducing wrongful convictions in the state, have come out in favor of Cuomo’s bail reform proposals. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), on the other hand, opposed any proposal in the budget to end cash bail, citing the “realities of human behavior” and “how the criminal mind operates.”

With a bipartisan bill aimed at getting states to reform their bail systems introduced in the U.S. Senate last summer, and several other states, like neighboring New Jersey, already having eliminated almost all cash bail, New York’s failure to act seems out of step with the rest of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gubernatorial candidate and frequent Cuomo critic Cynthia Nixon recently said, “We need to end cash bail in New York.”

Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that Legal Aid will continue to pursue bail reform and other much-needed reforms through the regular legislative process. “Today, tomorrow, and for the indefinite future, people of color will continue to bear the brunt of a disparate criminal justice system simply because Albany decided to put politics ahead of the people, and money ahead of justice,” Luongo said. “We are not done fighting, and we call on the Legislature to advance these key reform issues through standalone legislation by the end of session.”

But advocates for the status quo—like prosecutors—which needlessly incarcerates thousands of poor people every day, have always found a home in Albany, where cynicism and backroom-dealing reigns supreme.

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As Deadline Approaches for Homeless Ex-Offenders in Florida, County Threatens to Jail Them

A homeless encampment in Pinellas County, FL
Tom Stovall / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

As Deadline Approaches for Homeless Ex-Offenders in Florida, County Threatens to Jail Them

A few miles from Miami International Airport, outside of Hialeah, sits a tent camp of about 280 homeless people. There’s no electricity or running water and no bathrooms. News reports describe the stench of human waste and garbage, tents that flood when it rains, and flies, mosquitoes, and rats infesting the area. “Animals live better than this,” one resident told a reporter.

He and the others there are on the state sex offender registry. Miami-Dade County laws make it almost impossible for them to find places to live and bar homeless shelters from taking them in. For many registrants, the encampment has been a last resort, but in January, county leaders passed a new rule that makes them subject to arrest if they don’t find housing by May 7.

The person most responsible for the camp’s existence may be state lobbyist Ron Book. In 1996, he and his wife hired Waldina Flores as a nanny for their three children in their home outside Fort Lauderdale. Over the course of six years, Flores sexually and physically abused their oldest child, Lauren. Lauren Book eventually told a psychiatrist, and Flores was arrested and ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Lauren Book went on to found a nonprofit that promotes sexual abuse prevention, of which Ron Book is the chair; Lauren is now a Florida state senator. But Ron Book also lobbied for new laws. In 2005, he helped convince Miami Beach to pass an ordinance that bans people on sex offender registries from living within 2,500 feet of a school, a rule later adopted countywide. State legislators earlier had passed a law barring registrants from living within 1,000 feet of day care centers, parks, playgrounds, and schools.

In combination, those policies left only tiny patches where Miami-Dade registrants could live. By 2007, news reports were describing people with sex-crime records living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, some literally dropped off there by their probation officers. In 2010, a spate of negative news stories forced the county to shut down that encampment.

Book has been at the center of this debate for years, as both an advocate for the restrictions and as chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the lead body for implementing county plans for solving homelessness. After the Julia Tuttle camp closure, he used the proceeds of local food and beverage taxes to find short-term housing in a trailer park and hotels for some of the homeless people. But when that money ran out and the the trailer park was found to be too close to a school, the registrants were out on the streets again. In March 2014, the Miami New Times reported that 57 men were living at the Hialeah encampment, and its numbers have since more than quadrupled.

A 2013 study in the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review found that only 4 percent of Miami-Dade county residences were outside a ban zone, and only 1 percent of legal residences rented for $1,250 a month or less. Registrants in the county are more than 50 times as likely as those in the general population to be homeless, the researchers found. Many of the people living in the encampment have family members who would take them in, but their homes are off-limits, says Jeanne Baker, legal panel chair of the ACLU’s greater Miami chapter.

Take Jeff*, convicted in 2004 of viewing child pornography. (He doesn’t want his real name used for fear of jeopardizing his housing and job situations, and putting himself at risk of vigilante attacks.) “I remember looking at stuff on the internet for reasons that I can’t justify,” he told The Appeal. “I didn’t realize that you can go to jail for looking at something on the internet. I should have known better.”

He spent three years in federal prison and got out in 2007. He wanted to return to the house he and his wife owned in Miami-Dade, he said. But his release plan was denied because the 2005 law — passed after his conviction — put it in a no-go zone. Jeff’s parents would have been happy to house him too, but their home was also off-limits.

Jeff said he looked for months. The few places that were outside a residency zone turned him down once they found out he was on the registry. Finally, an old college friend who lived in a remote area rented him a room. That worked for five years until the friend had enough of roommate living. After another futile search, Jeff left for a nearby county in 2012.

“I know so many [registrants] who are homeless,” he said. “I had plenty of money and strong family support. If not for that, I’d likely be out there with them.”

Ironically, registrants like Jeff who are looking for housing depend on Book for help, given his role as the Trust’s chair. When unflattering stories on the Hialeah encampment emerged last summer, Book and other officials promised to shut it down by offering residents other housing. But those who can’t or won’t move will be subject to arrest.

It’s already illegal to camp overnight on county property. Violators can be arrested, though police have to offer them the chance to go to a shelter. Since area shelters don’t take registrants, however, they had been allowed to stay in the encampment. But in January, in an effort to abolish the encampment, the county commissioners eliminated the requirement to offer registrants shelter, so those in the encampment have until the May 7 deadline to relocate or face arrest. In the interim, the county has promised to bring in portable toilets, handwashing stations, and garbage cans to partially remediate conditions. (The county commissioner who drafted the rule didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the new policy, nor did the county mayor’s office. A spokesperson for the county police director declined an interview request.)

Book says the people in the encampment need to take more initiative to find housing. Trust staff have visited the encampment to tell them about available housing assistance, he said. “We’ve told folks repeatedly, ‘You gotta jump on it — our staff is available to respond to you,’” he told The Appeal. “There are places they can live.”

But the “Housing Search Tool for Homeless Sex Offenders” on the Trust’s website contradicts that claim. The tool lets registrants plug in an address to check whether it’s in a banned zone. Of 20 randomly selected apartments under $1,100 selected from and entered into the search tool, none fell outside a restricted zone. ($1,100 is the cutoff for what’s considered affordable for a Miami-Dade resident with the county annual median income of about $44,000.)

Presented with those results, Book blamed the local housing market and said the state legislature needs to appropriate money to house registrants away from the population, which he said he’s advocated for.

But he rejects the most obvious fix — getting rid of the 2,500-foot residency restriction. An October 2014 National Criminal Justice Association review of available research on these types of policies notes that “there is no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions.” Their unintended consequences — “loss of housing, loss of support systems, and financial hardship … may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” the researchers concluded.

Book isn’t convinced. “You’re not going to get me to ever say that residency restrictions are not appropriate,” he told The Appeal. “Just because there’s no study, no data [to show that they work], you’ve got to use some level of common sense…. And common sense tells me that I shouldn’t think it’s OK to have predators and offenders living in close proximity to schools, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers, and the like.”

But Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, which advocates for reforming state and local sex-offense laws, says Book’s support of residency restrictions is misguided. “The situation with his daughter is very sad, but he pushes a lot of legislation that’s counterproductive to public safety,” she said. “People need to be with family, they need to have jobs, and they need to have a roof over their head.”

A glimmer of hope for activists like Colletta arrived on March 26 when a judge in neighboring Broward County dismissed a case against two registrants who had violated a similar residency ordinance in the city of Fort Lauderdale. The ACLU helped the pair fight the charges based on the U.S. and state constitutions’ ex post facto clauses: Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance was enacted in 2007 after the two plaintiffs were convicted. The ACLU has filed a similar lawsuit in federal court against Miami-Dade County that’s set to go to trial in June, says Baker. Still, the win in Fort Lauderdale is narrow — it applies only to those convicted before the city ordinance was passed.

Around the country, places that wall off large swaths of housing from those with sex-crime records continue to get the same results: people living on the street. Homeless registrants in Orlando, in a county where residency restrictions average 2,500 feet, sometimes list the local Walmart as their permanent address, according to a news report last November. In October 2014, Milwaukee passed a similar ordinance and the number of homeless registrants promptly soared from 15 to 230 in less than two years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. In Indiana’s Boone County, a thousand-foot residency restriction led the sheriff to require six homeless registrants there to find permanent residences or pitch their tents on county jail property.

At least one Miami-Dade official seems desperate for an alternative solution as the May 7 deadline approaches. On the day the county issued it, Baker said county Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp approached her. “Can the ACLU help with housing?” he reportedly asked. “No, I’m afraid we can’t,” she said. “We don’t do housing.”

*Not his real name.

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