“Rebuttal Statement of District Attorney Kenneth Florence to claims of improper handling of drug cases lodged by the Sheriff and the Center Police Department Chief
Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of having to defend the conduct of my office after certain unfavorable comments made in the July 8, 2014 issue of the Light and Champion Newspaper by the Shelby County Sheriff and the Center Police Department Chief. The Sheriff
has also made negative assertions on the local radio. Basically, these officials claim that the Judges and I are not properly handling drug cases.
I believe such public comments negatively undermine our joint mission of fighting crime and getting the bad guys off of the streets, and are also false and defamatory.
As a lawyer, I must conduct the affairs of my office within the bounds of the law and the Constitution. Recently, over a period of 6 weeks, two very major drug cases have been improperly investigated by these departments so that the cases cannot be prosecuted in a court of
law. Thousands of seized dollars cannot be legally taken from these drug dealers, and though very large quantities of drugs have been taken off of the street, the perpetrators cannot be brought
to justice. I am not happy about it at all. I was looking forward to the trial of a large scale drug case to send a message that drugs will not be tolerated. Most of the drug cases I see are lower level “dime bag” state jail felony type cases.
Now, first I want to stress that there are some very good officers in both departments. But what is lacking in each department is effective oversight and quality control. When a large drug raid occurs, the Sheriff and the Chief are quick to trumpet the raid in the press. When the legal cases fail due to incomplete investigation, Constitutional violations, or ineptness on follow through, I cannot make them whole.
When these cases have gone down in flames, I do not run to the press to point out the deficiencies in the Sheriff’s Department or the Center Police Department. In my opinion, that would send the wrong message to the public and to the criminals.
Enough is enough. Where the Sheriff and the Chief use generalizations, I shall use the facts. The May 12, 2014 joint Center P.D. and Sheriff’s Office raid that netted over $15,000 in
illegal drug profits, crack cocaine, marijuana, methadone and firearms was based upon a glaringly invalid search warrant. That raid was front page in the news, but the case can not be prosecuted nor could the seizure of money be handled in court due to these law enforcement agencies getting a non-lawyer magistrate judge to sign the search warrant.
I did not go the press and make the error front page news. Now yet another lawsuit is coming for both the Sheriff and the Chief. This raid took place in Tenaha; if I were a Center
taxpayer, I would be asking why the Chief is putting our tax dollars at risk in an operation in another jurisdiction outside the city? Helping out in a murder or manhunt is good policy, but running drug raids on obviously erroneous search warrants outside of your jurisdiction just puts the taxpayers at risk of another lawsuit.
When the Center Police Department earlier raided the wrong home next door pursuant to a search warrant, I did not release a statement to the press. However, the terrified couple who erroneously had their door kicked in did sue the Center Police Department.
When the Sheriff caught a man with Methamphetamine in the jail, he brought me a case, but failed to submit the drugs to a laboratory for testing. I did not fail to properly prosecute thatcase; the Sheriff’s Department failure to follow through made the case impossible to prosecute. That same individual pleaded guilty to other charges to which the Sheriff was not happy about the sentence, but the “drugs in the jail” case would have been the strongest case and resulted in a greater terms of years in prison.
The Sheriff is quoted in the July 8, 2014 issue of the Light and Champion: “This is probably the dirtiest county there is for a long way around.” It is unclear what he means, or to whom he is referring, but I can assure the citizens that I am keeping my campaign promise of honesty and integrity.
More recently, just 6 weeks after the botched May 12 joint S.O. and Center P.D. raid, the Center Police Chief trumpeted in the news two search warrant raids conducted on the same day, June 25, 2014. These raids were big and thankfully took a large quantity of Phencyclidine (PCP), Marijuana and Codeine off of the street. However, one of those search warrants, the one that netted approximately ½ gallon of PCP is invalid on its face. We just completed a three-day full adversary hearing over the issue with four defense attorneys grilling the Center P.D. officers. The search warrant errors just leap off of the page at you. I have tried to salvage the cases, but the error is of a magnitude that even after arguing a “good faith exception”, the Court will surely be forced to throw the evidence out. The other search warrant case from that day is in jeopardy
as well because most of the drugs were found outside the place to be searched and the officers were unable to “affirmatively link” the arrested individuals to most, but not all, of those drugs during their testimony. The law is the law, and no amount of spin can salvage the cases.
It has been standard procedure for law enforcement, since even before I arrived in the county, to bring search warrants to the District Attorney for review. In the above-mentioned cases that was not done. Those search warrants were drafted and signed when I was in the office and available to assist. I know, I checked.
These cases I have just discussed have major problems, and those problems are not due to
improper handling by my office as the Sheriff and the Chief claim. These problems stem from the law enforcement investigation side.
I could go on further about other deficiencies under the Sheriff’s administration and the Center Police Chief’s administration. However, the above errors alone are simply just huge, and to go on will continue to harm our joint mission of fighting crime and denigrate into a tit-for-tat. Neither the Sheriff nor the Chief has approached me directly about their concerns; I learned about their unfounded complaints for the first time in the news. After the Sheriff spoke negatively about me on the radio, I personally approached him and asked him if he had a problem with my office that we needed to discuss. He stated that there was not a problem.
Now I do not claim to be perfect, and I have made mistakes. I am also glad that I am comfortable enough with who I am to be able to admit that I am not perfect. However, I do take great care to be sure I am right. I pay close attention to detail, and I wish our law enforcement agencies would do likewise. For example I personally try to review every case that comes in the office. I review every case from the S.O., Center P.D., Timpson P.D., the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Rangers and the Special Cattle Rangers, the Constables, our school district police departments, and even federal law enforcement from our national forests. If I, alone, can personally review every felony case in our county, then the Sheriff and the Chief should have the time to personally review every case from their own departments to ensure quality control. If law enforcement just proceeds haphazardly until the “thrill of the hunt” is over and an arrest is made, and then stops on the follow through...then the administration of justice inthe Court system suffers tremendously. Every hunter knows that if you fail to properly field dress your kill, the meat will spoil.
In spite of all of this, I pledge to the taxpayers, citizens, and voters that I will try to work with these departments and do the best that I can do with the cases that are brought to me. After all, as a lawyer and now more recently politician, I am used to having stones thrown my way. Like “water off of a duck’s back” they say.
Most importantly, I do believe we have a larger problem in our county in regards to law enforcement. That is every single department, the Sheriff’s Office, the Center Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the County Attorney’s Office, the Judges, and the Court Fund have all undergone large budget reductions over the last two years. There is no way
around it; such large cuts impede our ability to do our jobs.
The District Attorney’s budget has been reduced roughly 40% over the last two years. There are 254 counties in Texas. The next 20 counties in line that have less population after Shelby each have at least one, sometimes two Assistant District Attorneys. Shelby County got its first Assistant District Attorney over 27 years ago when John Walker hired Bob Goodwin in
1986. Panola County had roughly 5,054 felony criminal cases over the last five years; Shelby County has had roughly 5,584 felony criminal cases over the same time period. Yet Panola County has two Assistant District Attorneys, whereas I work alone.
Due to the budget issues, all in law enforcement are forced to work in “triage” mode, which is a medical term that means you have to prioritize the cases and deal with the most severe first that can be saved, yet abandon the lost causes. I believe that lack of resources may be impacting the quality of the Sheriff’s cases and the Center P.D.’s cases as well. With more resources, they too could devote the attention to detail I give to the legal part of it.
Just last week I learned that the Court Fund is about out of money to pay for court appointed attorneys, which unfortunately, is a large proportion of the cases due to the overall economy. We may not have enough in the fund to have any more jury trials for the remainder of the budget year; we may also need to postpone most plea bargain cases until the next budget year. I am working on that issue...stay tuned.
I am proud of the successes we have had. In the first 5 months of the year, three Capital Murderers were sent to prison for Life, without Parole, after a jury trial. Under our current schedule, my office gets about 10 jury trial weeks a year. The other trial weeks are reserved for civil cases, i.e. disputes over money. The Sheriff and the Chief suggested in the news that we should have 10 jury trials a year dedicated just for drug cases. Drug cases are important, but so is murder, robberies with firearms, aggravated assault, rape, child rape, burglary, theft, etc. If we all had more resources devoted to law enforcement, and maybe just a little less for road maintenance (note I said a little less), we could all do our jobs more effectively, with better quality control. God bless America, and God bless Shelby County.”
-Kenneth Florence, Shelby County District Attorney