Video Killed the Drug Conviction: Chicago Narcs Busted Lying Through Their Teeth [FEATURE]

Part 10 of an occasional series on police and prosecutorial misconduct by Clarence Walker, [email protected].

It was just another marijuana bust by Chicago's crack dope squad and should have resulted in an easy conviction, but thanks to a forgotten camera, things didn't exactly work out the way the cops planned. Now, the pot dealer is free, he has a bunch of cash in pocket, and it's the cops who are facing justice.

It went down on June 6, 2013, when three Chicago Police narcotics officer and a pair of suburban Glenview police officers pulled over Joseph Sperling on the pretext that he had failed to properly use his turn signal, then claimed Sperling told them there were drugs in his vehicle. The cops said they found marijuana in plain view and arrested Sperling on marijuana possession and distribution charges. Business as usual, so far.

But when it came time to go to court the following March, things went south for the cops. Prosecutors had been questioning Chicago PD narcotics officer William Pruente, who said in sworn testimony that when police pulled over Sperling they immediately smelled marijuana and ordered him to exit the vehicle and stand at the rear of the car.

Then, defense attorney Steven Goldman asked the veteran narc if Sperling was handcuffed after he got out of the car.

"No, he was not handcuffed," Pruente replied. "He was not under arrest at that time."

Chicago narcotic officers Sergeant James Padar and Vince Morgan and Glenview Police officers James Horn and Sergeant Theresa Urbanowski backed up Pruente's story.

Then, as Urbanowski was testifying, defense attorney Goldman dropped a bombshell. He interrupted the testimony to inform Judge Catherine Haberkorn that he needed to offer a videotape into evidence.

In a moment of courtroom drama like something out of "Law and Order," Goldman revealed that the video came from Urbanowski's police cruiser and that it flatly contradicted the sworn testimony of the police officers. The police had been lying to the court and to the judge and the video would prove it, Goldman said.

As Goldman patiently took Urbanowski back over the events she'd testified about, he played the recording and asked her to describe the difference between her original testimony and what was happening on the tape.

The footage contradicted the testimony of the police officers. Pruente had testified that Sperling had not been arrested or handcuffed until the cops had found the dope in plain view, but the video showed Pruente walking up to Sperling's car, reaching in the open window, unlocking the door, pulling Sperling out, handcuffing him, and placing him in the back seat of a patrol car. Only then did the officers move to search the car.

The video clearly showed the officers spending minutes thoroughly searching Sperling's car before finding weed and a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms in a black duffel bag.

As defense attorney Goldman noted during questioning, if the drugs had really been in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle, the officers had no need or reason to search it because they already had the drugs.

The brazen distance between the officers' testimony and what the video revealed infuriated Judge Haberkorn, who immediately granted Goldman's motion to suppress the evidence because the video showed police had neither probable cause to arrest Sperling nor a warrant to search his vehicle.

"This is very outrageous conduct," Haberkorn said from the bench. "All the officers lied on the stand today. All their testimony is a lie. There is strong evidence it was a conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."

Haberkorn then dismissed the criminal charges against Sperling.

"If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone," said Sperling, then 23, during a press conference with reporters after the release of his videotaped arrest. "I just happen to be one of the lucky few that had a video that proved the officers were wrong."

The Cook County criminal justice system may have been done with Sperling, but he wasn't done with it. Shortly after the charges were dismissed, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging illegal search and seizure against the Chicago and Glenview police departments. And he won. The two cities involved settled the suit, paying Sperling $195,000 for his troubles.

Others who have been similarly victimized could do the same. Under the US Code Section 1983, citizens are allowed to sue police in federal court as a result of an illegal search and arrest if the officer acted with malice "under color of law."

In Sperling's case, attorney John Loevy argued in the lawsuit that there was insufficient legal justification for officers to stop and arrest Sperling and search his vehicle, which was done without probable cause. Those illegal actions violated Sperling's civil rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments, as prescribed under Section 18 US Code 242. The argument was strong enough to force the cities to settle.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (twitter.com)
Former Houston Police homicide and narcotic gang investigator Rick Moreno told Drug War Chronicle the officers lied to protect an informant when they could simply have gone by the book and done their bust right.

"Once those officers had all the information about this guy having dope in his car they needed a warrant," Moreno explained.

But the narcs plotted a scheme disguised as a routine traffic stop to avoid having to obtain one.

"What they've done in this case was a 'wall off' technique." Moreno said, referring to a strategy most narcotic officers use to put a wall between the officer and the information provided by a snitch. And if everything goes as planned, the officer gets the dope without a warrant, they got the dope dealer and the snitch is protected."

"The biggest casualty in the war on drugs is the truth," said Chicago civil attorney Jon Loevy, who represented Sperling in his civil rights lawsuit.

"The ends justify the means," said criminal defense attorney Goldman, explaining the attitudes that drove the cops to lie on the stand. "So because they get the bad guy off the street or the drugs out of their hands, everybody's happy."

Well, not everybody, not when the lies are so blatant they cannot be ignored. The Cook County criminal justice system wasn't done with the cops caught lying on the witness stand. Sgt. Urbanowski's camera had caught them red-handed, and four of them were indicted by a Cook County grand jury on perjury, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct charges in June 2015. They all face up to five years in prison on each count. The three Chicago police officers were immediately suspended, and the Glenview police officer was later fired. Their trials got underway this week.

"The foundation of our criminal justice system rests on the concept of truthful testimony," said Cook County States' Attorney Anita Alvarez in a press statement announcing the indictments. "We expect it from our witnesses and we demand it from our police officers."

The criminal charges filed against the officers made headlines across the state and constituted another black mark against the much criticized Chicago Police Department. But the buzz around the courthouse was not just over the charges, but whether they would lead to the dismissal of other drug cases in which the charged cops were involved.

Calls to the Cook County prosecutor's office regarding whether the four indicted officers would be investigated for perjury or illegal tactics in previous drug cases have not been returned.

While Sperling won $195,000 in damages from his illegal search and seizure lawsuit, legal experts say such victories are rare. Defendants usually don't pursue such suits due to lack of funds, and if a case involving a bad search is dismissed, most defendants are just relieved the case is over and they no longer face charges, said Penn State University law professor David Rudovsky, a leading civil rights and criminal defense attorney and author of The Law of Arrest, Search, and Seizure.

Penn State law professor David Rudovsky (law.penn.edu)
Rudovsky told Drug War Chronicle there is also another reason such lawsuits are rare.

"Why would a jury award money for damages to a criminal already proven to have committed a crime?" he asked rhetorically.

Police perjury is nothing new -- the practice has even generated its own nickname, "testilying" -- but the Sperling case has renewed debate over why law enforcers resort to breaking the law.

"Police perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace," wrote former San Francisco police commissioner Peter Keane in a much-cited article on the topic.

"I've heard some police officers say in a social setting, 'If [the defendant] is going to lie to beat the case, why can't I lie too?" Cook County Public Defender, and former prosecutor Abishi Cunningham Jr. related.

"When police lie to make a case on someone they are saying the criminal justice system doesn't work... so I'm going to do it my way," Houston civil and criminal attorney Annie Briscoe told the Chronicle.

Briscoe recalled a drug case involving police illegal search where police recovered a sizeable amount of drugs from a client of hers. Houston police claimed he resembled a fugitive they were looking for. With her client facing up to life in prison, Briscoe convinced the trial judge to throw out the charge because of illegal search and seizure through the simple expedient of showing the judge a photo of the fugitive, who looked nothing like her client.

While the judge called Briscoe's client "one lucky guy," Briscoe had a slightly different take.

"The law should be enforceable by way of truth," she said.

Police are also incentivized by the war on drugs to cut corners so they can reap monetary rewards, whether through asset forfeiture or by earning federal anti-drug grants through aggressive enforcement actions. And each bust makes their numbers look better.

As NYPD Officer Adil Polanco once revealed through a surfeit of honesty, "Our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them. You have to write somebody, arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number is there."

Yes, there are numerous reasons cops lie. But none of them justify the lying, or the corrosive effect such behavior has on public trust and respect for law enforcement. These Chicago police officers are about to find out just how seriously the system takes such dishonesty, especially when it is so blatant the system can't pretend it doesn't see it.

Chicago, IL
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Why no jail time?

Why weren't the cops prosecuted for perjury? Why weren't they fired, and pensions denied? Why weren't their assets seized? Homes, cars, boats, bank accounts, personal possessions, etc. Why did the taxpayers have to pay for their criminal activity? Why aren't the cops in jail? Why weren't they held accountable? WTF?

Because they DID get Charged with Perjury!

READ AGAIN.......They DID get Charged With Perjury!

LEAP_Speaker's picture

Good Cop's Bad Cop's

I thankful to say I'm not aware of one time any officer I worked with lied under oath. If you make a good case, there should be no reason to lie. 

 

Somehow we forgot the lesson's we learned in the 1950's when the law enforcement agency would receive a portion of ticket revenue. There was a lot of abuse in the name of making money. It's the same today, law enforcement should not profit from drug arrests. 

 

It doesn't matter if they get it from direct seizures of money, or from seizures of vehicles and property, it's just wrong. 

 

Goldmans annoying quote.

This guy Goldman the defense attorney did a great job here but then he had to go and say something stupid. I know he was just trying to make a point but still, its ironic because I was just thinking about this for the whatever hundredth time the other day just walking the street, how many times I've heard cops use the term "bad guys." Bad guys vs Good guys. Cops vs Robbers. Cowboys vs Indians. Its juvenile for sure but ultimately its WRONG. Bad guys are rapists and murderers. Bad guys would also be all those greedy hedge fund people doing all those insane white collar schemes when they've already got millions in the bank. Selling marijuana, heroin, crack, DRUGS, doing DRUGS doesnt make ANYBODY a BAD GUY. Sorry. We all know my story by now, I've been coming here for years, and in my adult life of homelessness I cant even begin to tell you how many times I've had to deal with cops in all the various states and countries (like Ukraine, when, me and my girlfriend were in some ancient religious place and the cops screwed with us LOL) ive been in this nomadic heroin existence nevertheless like I always say though, and remember now I love LEAP and I think they are truly heroes and I've always always supported LEAP (in fact at several rallies in NYC i've spoken with LEAP supporters/members) but LEAP aside, I'd break the internet if I listed all the times I've dealt with cops. Just this past month in fact, the effects of their behaviors have been felt, my roommate got busted, 15k bond 25k bail, bail got remanded, his sitting in jail now. Close friend and his girlfriend sitting in Newark jail a few weeks after the roommate got busted, 35k bail, facing a trafficking charge that wont stick. a very close friend inadvertently got my roommate and himself busted because an undercover cop posing as a junkie fooled him into orchestrating a sale (this being the third time he got busted like that) and they're just ever present. This idea of "good guys" I've heard it so many times it makes me sick. DUDE you guys are ruining peoples lives, destroying families, putting mothers and fathers in a freaking square room with bars like animals, seperated from their children, parents, friends.... and why? Because we like to do drugs. OHHHH big deal so what? SO WHAT? You're only ground is "its illegal" thats it because so long as alcohol is legal i dont wanna hear anything about drug doing damage... besides its my body my choice. This "good guy bad guy" BS has to stop. I know its just a word and it shouldnt upset someone so much but you gotta look beyond that and at the culture and the thought process the terms fuel. As long as they think they're super heroes doing "God's work" (LOL) and were the "bad guys" this cops and robbers, cowboys and indians insanity will continue. The fact is, look at this article and consider the facts, YOU GUYS ARE THE BAD GUYS LOL. 

police are the 'bad guys', agreed.

wondering if u're the same guy i recall who commented pretty frequently in reply to stories on this blog in recent years, but not for the past year or 2. if so, glad u're back, as your commentary was missed. i agree completely with u about the police. they're the 'bad guys', the assholes doing the establishment's dirty work, all in the name of an idiotic dogmatic and puritanically cruel sense of 'morality'. scumbags. sadly we live in a society in which scum, not cream, rises to the top. thanx for posting, cj. we may lack power, but at least we're not totally alone.

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