Investigation into police could drop charges for 50

The News Leader

March 8, 2010 4:58:40 PM PST
An investigation into suspected wrongdoing by police officers could lead to charges against more than 50 people being dropped and convictions being vacated, lawyers say. Authorities have said little about the investigation, but it appears at least four officers are suspected of planting evidence in many cases, mostly involving drugs. Innocent people may have been jailed if there was wrongdoing, and the fallout could mean that people who did commit crimes could be getting out of jail because of the transgressions.

And it certainly doesn't help the image of the police force in Camden, which regularly ranks as one of the nation's most crime-ridden cities.

"It significantly undermines public confidence in the police," said Jon'a Meyer, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers-Camden.

Four Camden police officers were suspended in November. Since then, several people arrested by the officers have said their convictions had been vacated or charges had been dropped. The suspects and convicts say the officers planted drugs on them and used threats to try to coerce their cooperation in drug cases in a city where street-level dealing runs rampant.

No charges have been filed against the officers.

Law enforcement agencies are mum about the case. The Camden County prosecutor's office won't comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Smith said he couldn't confirm the existence of the investigation.

But lawyers representing those who have had charges dismissed can give some picture of the case's scope.

Yvonne Smith Segars, the state's head public defender, told The Associated Press that more than 50 clients of her office have been affected.

Local newspapers have reported on the cases of at least eight other men who had charges dropped, including several who were released from correctional facilities. Some of them are not represented by Segars' office and are not included in her number.

Additionally, defense lawyer Michael Pisnky said on Monday that two of his clients have had charges dismissed.

The number is likely to grow as criminal defense lawyers scour their files looking for clients who were arrested by the suspended officers.

One of those who says he was convicted despite being innocent is Antwyn Rolax, who was released from Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in January. He spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial on a marijuana possession charge after, he says, police planted drugs on him.

He struck a plea bargain in exchange for probation but then spent 10 months locked up after failing to meet two terms of probation: getting a GED and completing a drug treatment program, according to his lawyer, Len Baker.

Baker intends to file a civil lawsuit against the Camden Police Department. Other lawyers have said they also are considering action.

Baker said he's frustrated not to be getting more information from the prosecutor's office but is glad it seems to be taking seriously claims of police corruption, which he says are often ignored.

"My belief," he said, "is that the people from the prosecutor's office who were involved in seeing that these innocent people are freed are trying to do the right thing."


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