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Texas Court Affirms Drug Conviction Despite Police Misconduct

Drug crimes cases in the Houston often rely heavily on the testimony of police officers. We trust law enforcement to act in a professional and ethical manner when investigating any potential crime. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where a dishonest or “dirty” cop may be working for both sides, i.e. arresting defendants for drug crimes while dealing in the same illegal narcotics himself.

Officer’s “Drug Swapping” Does Not Alter Facts Underlying Arrest

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently confronted the question of when a dirty cop’s participation in a drug bust compromises the underlying arrest. The defendant was arrested in 2013 following a traffic stop initiated by two police officers. The traffic stop led to the defendant’s arrest on an outstanding warrant, and when police conducted an inventory search of his vehicle, the officers located a large quantity of a substance later identified by the Houston Police Department’s crime lab as cocaine.

The defendant eventually pleaded guilty to “possession of at least 400 grams of cocaine with intent to deliver.” The trial court sentenced him to the 15 years in prison. Normally, that would have been the end of the case, except that federal law enforcement–working separately from state and local authorities–was simultaneously investigating one of the officers who arrested the defendant.

As it turned out, this officer had also been working for a drug trafficking operation. And just to make things even more interesting, the officer was double-crossing his drug bosses by stealing from them. According to court records, the officer would replace cocaine shipments “with sheetrock and trace amounts of cocaine sprinkled on top.” The officer would then arrest the person carrying these “fake” drugs while keeping the real narcotics for himself.

The officer’s drug-swapping included the cocaine found in the defendant’s car in the present case. In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration tested the shipment seized from the defendant and found it “contained only trace amounts of cocaine.” When the Houston district attorney learned of all this, he informed the defendant’s attorney, who then filed a petition to set aside his guilty plea.

The defendant’s position was that he would never have pleaded guilty had he known of the police officer’s illegal conduct. At a minimum, the officer’s illegal actions would have been valuable evidence to impeach (discredit) the officer’s testimony had the case gone to trial. The trial court agreed the defendant’s conviction was illegal and said he should receive a new trial.

But a sharply divided Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) disagreed. By a 4-3 vote, the CCA held that while the police officer’s “misconduct was willful, brazen, and appalling,” it did not change the facts underlying the defendant’s conviction. The defendant was found in possession of cocaine, albeit heavily adulterated by the officer’s prior tampering. Yet such adulteration is irrelevant when it comes to determining the severity of a drug charge. A court only considers the “aggregate weight” of a mixture containing narcotics. As the CCA observed, the Texas Penal Code “makes no exceptions for cocaine with ‘a lot’ of sheetrock in it or based on the purity of the controlled substance.”

The CCA went on to say that the prosecution was under no obligation to disclose any evidence regarding the police officer’s misconduct prior to the defendant entering his guilty plea. The plea was not involuntary “merely because he does not have complete knowledge of every relevant circumstance of the case.” And in any event, the CCA said the officer’s “loathsome” conduct did not establish the defendant’s innocence.

Need Help Fighting a Texas Drug Charge in Galveston or League City?

It should be noted that only three of the CCA’s seven judges joined the principal opinion in this case. Indeed, there were three separate dissenting opinions that all maintained the defendant should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. The close nature of this case illustrates the importance of identifying and pursuing weaknesses in a drug case. If you have been charged with any type of drug crime and need assistance from a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.