Convicted for drug crimes, felons hope for reprieve in West Valley City investigation
South Salt Lake • In the end, Lana Rodriguez decided it would be safer to plead guilty to drug possession. She cares for her grandson and didn't want to risk up to five years in prison when prosecutors were offering probation.
"I should have fought that. I should have fought it," the 46-year-old Rodriguez said Thursday from her South Salt Lake apartment. "I guess we all learn from our mistakes."
So when Rodriguez heard that the disbanded West Valley City Neighborhood Narcotics Unit and its officers including the detective who accused her of possessing drugs were embroiled in a probe alleging corruption, evidence mishandling and other issues, she began contacting any lawyer who would listen, pleading for a review of her case.
Rodriguez is among a number of Utah defendants waiting anxiously for the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to begin reviewing cases in which they have already been found guilty. Some may be on probation; others may be behind bars. District Attorney Sim Gill said last week that a review of those cases will begin in earnest within the next few weeks.
Authorities have already thrown out 99 active cases 89 in district court and 10 in federal court linked to the disbanded unit. Gill announced Friday that he is seeking to dismiss another 26 cases as his office sifts through more than 400 active cases associated in some way with the narcotics unit, though not all of those will be dismissed. And he will alert judges and defense attorneys in 48 other cases that there may be evidence that calls into question the credibility of a witness or witnesses. But those cases can still be prosecuted, he believes.
Gill didn't know how many of the unit's cases have been adjudicated since 2009. The review of those cases will be more nuanced.
Utah court records show Rodriguez has had troubles with the law in the past, including convictions for retail theft and bail jumping, driving violations and providing false information to law enforcement. But until she encountered the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit in June 2010, she had no drug or alcohol-related arrests or convictions, court records show. That changed after a narcotics officer accused her of possessing half a gram of methamphetamine.
"He didn't find no drugs on me or nothing," Rodriguez insisted Thursday from her home. "[But] who is going to believe me over an officer of the law? It's his word against my word [and it still is]."
Rodriguez said she decided to plead guilty and was sentenced by a 3rd District judge to 18 months' probation.
She said it's not fair that she has "to go through this, and I didn't do it."
Gill said he met last Monday with defense attorneys and the Utah Attorney General's Office to discuss the upcoming review of already-adjudicated cases like the one involving Rodriguez.
"We discussed what that process and protocol may look like," Gill said, "to sort of get our arms around what that universe of cases is going to look like."
Patrick Corum, assistant director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, estimates that more than 90 percent of the defendants who potentially might be affected, including Rodriguez, were represented by public defenders.
He said former clients have been calling, and his staff has begun compiling a list of cases that might be eligible for review.
At this point, he estimated that the number of adjudicated cases may be in the hundreds, but it's too soon to know for sure.
"We still don't know what 'it' is," he said, referring to the factors that prompted Gill's office to toss so many cases.
"Quite frankly, as long as they keep dismissing cases, we're not entitled to know what 'it' is," Corum said. "Based on very sketchy information, we're trying to cobble together a list of the cases that might be affected. We're getting these cases and looking through them."
Gill said his case review focuses on particular officers in the narcotics unit, whom he has not identified, rather than certain types of charges or the unit as a whole. The review currently involves cases as far back as 2009.
"If that individual officer isn't your officer [who investigated your case]," Gill said, "then your case is not getting dismissed."
West Valley City leaders have said that an internal audit of the narcotics unit unearthed a number of problems, including mishandled evidence, evidence booked without proper documentation and the possibility of missing drugs and money. They also said seized items, such as loose change or property inside confiscated vehicles, were improperly accounted for and that officers kept "trophies" from drug busts for themselves and for use as training aids.
The city in April announced that nine officers associated with the unit had been placed on paid leave: Lt. John Coyle, Sgt. Michael Johnson, and detectives Shaun Cowley, Kevin Salmon, Ricardo Franco, Sean McCarthy, Rafael Frausto, Chris Smith and Barbara Lund.
Gill hasn't said whether his probe involves any or all of those officers. He said city officials decide who to place on leave and he had no comment on that decision.
He said his staff is working to draw a reasonable map of this "chaos of cases my office finds itself in."
"I have to create some reasonable way to handle this thing and that is what we're doing," he said. "My office is still working through stacks of files. The goal I have [is] to go from the most immediate concern, the wing of the house that is immediately on fire, to the wing of the house that is just dirty."
The U.S. Attorney's Office had no comment Thursday on whether it planned to review any federally adjudicated cases.
"We didn't create this mess," Gill said, "but we're the ones that have to clean it up, and we're going to do it right."
Debbie Hill, president of Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said defendants such as Rodriguez who want their cases reviewed should contact the attorney who initially handled them. If that fails, defendants can call her organization.
She said her association has been impressed so far with how Gill has handled the matter.
But she stressed that everyone including the nine West Valley City officers who are on leave should be presumed innocent.
"We're very interested in what is going on," Hill said. "We can't just convict the officers, but it is very important that the cases are looked at."
She said her group's goal is a unified approach among attorneys regarding the reviews.
"This is something big, and we want to make sure those clients that are impacted have the opportunity to get relief somehow," she said. "They have to have recourse, somebody to reach out to help them."
Review of narcotics cases
The office of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is reviewing four categories of cases related to West Valley City's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which is being investigated for possible corruption and evidence mishandling, among other issues:
Cases in which an officer is the principal witness and which may be compromised by questions about the officer's veracity and credibility.
Cases in which an officer is a material witness, but not necessarily the principal officer. Some charges involving specific officers may be dropped, but other aspects may go forward.
Cases in which the affected officer was involved only peripherally or the officer simply filed the case for a colleague.
Cases that have been adjudicated and in which defendants may have admitted guilt.
Source • Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office