Officer is curious ally in appeal

The Baltimore Sun

A federal drug case that put a Baltimore man with a long criminal record behind bars for 20 years is being appealed - and the defendant has an unusual ally in his corner: a city police officer who said in court that he has known the suspect since he was 11 years old.

Antonio Green, a seven-year veteran assigned to the department's violent crime impact division, testified at an evidentiary hearing that two bags of cocaine found in the silver BMW were hidden under a seat, not "in plain view," as the arresting officers had reported.

Green, who was called by the defense as a witness, also testified that the defendant, Richard Morris, had denied ownership of the drugs, contradicting the arresting officer's account that Morris had stated: "Everything is mine."

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett discounted Green's testimony, but the officer's testimony contradicting his colleagues in a federal courtroom has angered police and sparked an internal review. Sterling Clifford, a Baltimore police spokesman, said the department's internal affairs unit has opened a file on the incident.

Police said they want to know how defense attorneys learned of Green's alternate account of the arrest. The officer said in court that he had arrived at the scene as backup and witnessed the exchange. Green said the suspect's lawyers later reached out to him.

Though Morris pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession with intent to distribute and was sent to prison, he is raising the inconsistencies about how the drugs were found in his appeals brief asking a judge to throw out the case, contending that the search was illegal. If a judge rules that the drugs are inadmissible as evidence, Morris could withdraw his guilty plea and prosecutors would lose crucial evidence used to prove him guilty.

"That is quite extraordinary," said Louis Michael Seidmann, a professor at Georgetown University law school. "Sometimes officers will contradict each other. But I've never heard an officer testify for the defense at a suppression hearing."

The fact that Green would take the unusual step of contradicting a fellow officer in court "might well lead a judge to believe the [arresting] officer was lying," Seidmann said. But Seidmann noted that the personal relationship between Green and the defendant could undermine the officer's testimony.

At the November hearing, U.S. Assistant Attorney A. David Copperthite, seemed surprised by the officer's appearance for the defense, according to transcripts reviewed by The Sun. When Green answered perfunctory questions about where he was assigned in the department, Copperthite interrupted twice, saying: "I'm sorry. I didn't hear that. I'm sorry officer."

The judge accepted the account of the arresting officers. "I make a finding that [the cocaine] was in plain view," Bennett said. "And I don't find Detective Green's testimony alone to destroy the court's finding of credibility on the part of the officers as to the cocaine being in plain view."

The judge also found that it was possible that Green did not hear the defendant when he claimed ownership of the drugs, again ruling in favor of the prosecution. The judge sentenced Morris - considered a career criminal because of past convictions - to 20 years in prison.

Copperthite declined to comment, as did Morris' public defender, Denise C. Barrett.

The initial arrest occurred about 7:30 p.m. April 12, 2007, when two undercover drug detectives - Bryan Campbell, a 20-year veteran, and his partner, Gabriel F. Brooks, with nine years on the force - were sitting in an unmarked black Mustang parked in a gas station doing surveillance work in Southeast Baltimore. They saw the silver BMW with "large chrome wheels" pull into the gas station, according to court papers.

The detectives watched a man talk on his cell phone for a few minutes and then go into the gas station, they reported. Both said they believed the man was someone they had arrested before.

A second man came across the street and the pair went back into the store, then got into the BMW. The driver pulled out of the lot, went around the block, then drove back to the gas station and parked near the pumps.

The detectives followed the car, and when the car returned to the gas station, Brooks walked up to it. The man in the driver's seat began to get out of the car. The officer identified himself and told the man to stay seated. He seemed nervous and unsure about following the officer's orders, so Brooks drew his gun, according to Campbell's account in court papers.

Campbell approached the BMW and realized that the man was not who they thought. "I said, 'That's not Weldon,'" Campbell testified. Instead, it was Richard Morris, the man's brother. The two look much alike, according to court documents.

Morris was in the driver's seat, his sister was in the front passenger seat and another man was in the back. That man held a "wad of U.S. currency" in his hand, according to Campbell's report.

Campbell approached the passenger side of the car and saw two bags "containing a white rock substance" on the front passenger floor, according to charging documents. "This suspected cocaine was in plain view on the floor ... and was in a common area of the vehicle not concealed."

Campbell arrested the three occupants, and as the sister was being detained, Morris blurted out: "Everything is mine, she don't have nothing to do with it," according to court documents.

The defense argued that once Campbell realized that he had mistaken the driver's identity, he lost any probable cause to detain and search him.

"Even though Detectives Campbell and Brooks knew nothing about Mr. Morris, and could not longer rely on their prior knowledge of [the brother's] involvement with drugs, the detectives continued their investigation of the driver and his passengers," Barrett, an assistant federal public defender, wrote in an appeals brief.

Bolstering her argument that the search was illegal is the testimony provided by Green, who said the drugs were not in plain sight and insisted that Morris never made a confession.

Green testified under oath that the drugs were not in plain view and were found only after Campbell searched various parts of the car, including the passenger seat and the rear seat and then "swiped his hand underneath the passenger seat from the back and he pulled out a plastic bag."

Green testified that he had witnessed the exchange, saying that Morris never confessed. Instead, Green said that when officers found the drugs the defendant said: "That's not mine."

Amy Dillard, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, called the differences between the two accounts "huge."

"If the initial officers did not have probable cause to approach the car, then they don't have the right to search it," she said.

And, if the matter went to trial, she said, Green's testimony would cast doubt on which of the three people in the car had possessed the drugs and could be charged.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°