The latest brouhaha between city prosecutor Pat Jessamy and the police arises from the arrest of a city police officer who failed to appear on time to testify in a gun case.
Judge Gale Rasin issued a “body attachment” to lock the officer up overnight at Central Booking. Not only was the situation potentially dangerous for the officer, it was downright humiliating.
City prosecutors said they had to request the body attachment or lose their case. Police say prosecutors didn’t need to have the officer locked up.
Judging from the subsequent accusations and hard feelings swirling around the internet, law enforcement cooperation has taken another hit. But this time they are all in it together, because everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.
In late January 2009 city police officers Victoria Reynolds and Jason Shreves got a call at night for multiple young men, possibly armed, wearing ski masks and getting out of a vehicle. Officer Shreves was first on the scene and approached a parked minivan with two men inside. One of the men appeared to place something under the driver’s seat in front of him, and when Shreves shined his flashlight through the window he saw the butt of a gun.
Officer Reynolds arrived when Shreves was looking into the window and assisted him with pulling the suspects out of the car and searching it. They recovered the gun, ski masks, crow bars, and similar “criminal tools.”
Fast forward a year to last Monday afternoon. After four postponements, the case was finally sent to Judge Rasin’s court for trial. Rasin said that the trial had to be finished by Tuesday because she was not available the rest of the week. (According to the defense attorney on the video I watched, the lack of court availability created all the prior postponements.)
The defense first made a motion to keep the gun out of evidence, arguing that the police lacked probable cause to seize it. This required a hearing, but no police officers were present to testify. They had been placed “on call.”
Putting officers on call makes practical and economic sense for the police department. With so many postponements in the Circuit Court, letting them attend to other duties until really needed makes sense. But officers have an absolute duty to be available when the call comes.
The prosecutor told the judge that he could not get hold of Officer Reynolds, who was at the firearms range. He had called the range and was told she was dismissed for the day, and her personal cell phone was out of order. Judge Rasin gave him half an hour to bring her in, get a body attachment, or dismiss the case. After another hour or so, Judge Rasin issued the body attachment.
Prosecutors were right to say they would have lost the case without the body attachment. But they were wrong to tell the judge and the public that it was Officer Reynolds they needed. They needed Shreves. He had made all of the observations that led to seizing the gun. The judge ruled in the state’s favor solely on the basis of the testimony Shreves eventually gave Tuesday morning.
In fact, when the case went to trial before a jury, the prosecutor only called Shreves.
The prosecutor—a hard-working and dedicated young man--made an error in legal judgment. The officer he considered his “primary” witness—the one who wrote the police report—wasn’t the officer he needed on the defense motion.
But regardless of who the proper witness was, Reynolds was still supposed to be available. And the prosecutor did everything he could to forestall the arrest of Reynolds, including consulting with his supervisor, calling police supervisors, asking the judge to continue the case to the next day, and asking her to consider a police commander’s offer to charge Reynolds administratively and guarantee her appearance in court. He argued that it was rare for him to have to hunt down officers, and finally informed her that both of the officers were on their way. All to no avail.
Judge Rasin was the one determined to lock up Reynolds. At first it was about needing to finish the case by Tuesday. But that gave way almost immediately to extracting “a real consequence” from the police department.
Rasin learned that she was going to have time to hold the hearing Tuesday morning before she could get a jury panel. No practical reason existed any longer to lock up the officer, but Rasin wanted her pound of flesh.
When the prosecutor told her around 3 p.m. Monday that “Plan B”—Officer Shreves—was on his way to court, Rasin said she was “not sitting around waiting for another police officer.” When he subsequently told her that Reynolds had been reached and was also on her way to court, Rasin told him to hurry up and get the body attachment to her to sign, because otherwise it “would be a little awkward.”
In other words, even if Shreves or Reynolds arrived in time to testify on Monday, she wanted Reynolds arrested. She warned the sheriff and prosecutor not to extend any professional courtesy by warning Reynolds and giving her a chance to avoid the body attachment.
The next day, when an exhausted and emotional Reynolds was brought to court from jail, Rasin made her endure a long, condescending lecture about why she issued the body attachment “at the state’s attorney’s request.”
I don’t know whether Rasin has a bias against law enforcement agencies, but it sure appeared that way. She made a couple of mocking comments aimed at Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, and took a shot at prosecutors by claiming that they had “no apparent concern” for civilian witnesses who were locked up for “months.”
But perhaps her eagerness to lock up Reynolds is explained by a story she told about another handgun case she had where the officer was also at the firearms range. When told it was time to testify the officer said he was in a shooting competition, had just advanced to the next level, and wasn’t coming in.
She didn’t say what happened next, but I know I would have locked his rear end up if I had the chance. I recall my own murder case when my first scheduled witness, a police officer, failed to answer his phone when I called. He then had the gall to show up in the middle of the trial asking me to document his overtime.
Attitudes like these turn off judges and prosecutors, undermine the police mission, and need to be stamped out by the police department. Circling the wagons around officers who blow off court invites body attachments.
On the other hand, communication sometimes fails. And things happen. Just like when this case was postponed multiple times, leaving the defendant in jail for 14 months because the judiciary couldn’t get the case tried.
The Fraternal Order of Police, angry that the prosecutor didn’t choose to drop the case (and let the defendant go free), needs to cool its jets or risk losing all credibility.
But I understand the police suspicion of a state’s attorney (Pat Jessamy) who will sell them out whenever it suits her. I have touched on this subject more than once, such as in The Sad Truth Behind the Statistics, The Cost of Failed Teamwork, The Pot Calling Out the Kettle, and The Lie That Won’t Die.
More fundamentally, I understand their fierce protectiveness of their own. Because when it comes down to it, it isn’t me or the prosecutor or Judge Rasin who must walk up to a car at night with suspicious men inside. It’s Jason Shreves and Victoria Reynolds, who could have been blown away on the spot. (And after I drafted this, two officers did get shot.)
So I get their outrage over locking up Reynolds like a criminal. And I think Judge Rasin picked the wrong set of circumstances to make her point.
But she has also had enough experience with officers who don’t show up to have a point to make, which the police need to acknowledge and address.
As for Jessamy, if she isn’t going to work with the police, she should at least refrain from throwing stones while living in her own glass house.