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Crime

‘Sloppy and negligent’: Questions raised about Baltimore sheriff’s deputy’s affidavits for warrants, wiretap in gang case

A Baltimore sheriff’s deputy swore to a federal judge that a local rapper’s moniker was an acronym for a faction of a violent gang, then went on to write in an application for a search warrant that several of the musician’s comments were related to violence and organized crime.

In 2019, a federal magistrate judge signed the search warrant, finding that the deputy, Sgt. Jamile Boles, who is assigned to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force, provided enough probable cause for a court order requiring Instagram to give him access to the private messages of Xavier Johnson, also known as rapper Lor X.

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But the acronym didn’t match; the gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, was not known to have a faction that identified itself the way the deputy said and the rapper’s Instagram posts clearly showed the letters stood for something different, Boles admitted in court this week.

The revelation of several errors and assumptions Boles made in affidavits, submitted for warrants and digital wiretaps for the investigation into a drug trafficking organization authorities suspected Johnson of leading, came out this week during a hearing in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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Through his attorney, Johnson argued Boles intentionally lied or exhibited “reckless disregard for the truth” in the affidavits, that the warrants should be voided and that all evidence obtained from those court orders should be barred from entering the case. Despite expressing concerns about the sergeant’s work, Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Schiffer found that Boles’ errors did not amount to perjury or recklessness.

Legal experts said such hearings underscore a vulnerability of the criminal justice system: Judges reviewing applications for warrants rely on law enforcement officers to be diligent and honest with the information they swear to be true.

“We have set up a system where police can’t just decide they have probable cause. In order to do the search, we have said an independent judicial officer determines whether there’s probable cause,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

If officers are “loose with the facts,” he said, “then that whole system breaks down and the police are just searching where they choose.”

Johnson and 18 other people were charged under Maryland’s gang statute in a sweeping indictment, filed in July 2020, accusing Johnson of leading a criminal organization that ran fentanyl and heroin out of several stash houses in the city and was known to carry guns.

While the organization was not directly charged with violence, the indictment listed the 2019 fatal shooting of Gerald Brown, a former Baltimore basketball star, as one of the organization’s “overt acts.” Brown was gunned down after saying he wouldn’t “go down” for items recovered during a raid of an apartment he rented at Johnson’s request, according to the indictment.

Eight defendants have pleaded guilty to drug distribution, gang participation or both, according to court records. One person died before being prosecuted, while the cases for eight others are still pending.

Johnson is charged with 44 counts, including serving as a drug kingpin and supervising a criminal gang. He and three co-defendants are slated to be tried over 15 days in February.

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His attorney, Kenneth Ravenell, declined to comment. Ravenell, convicted on money laundering for a drug organization in December, was sentenced to nearly five years in prison himself and is scheduled to submit to federal custody Oct. 15. Maryland’s highest court in July ordered his law license suspended, effective next Tuesday.

Boles’ credibility came into question after Assistant Attorney General Megan Greene, a prosecutor briefly assigned to the gang case, alerted her supervisors about an instance where she found Boles erred in a warrant during an investigation they worked on while she was a Baltimore prosecutor at least a year ago.

Prosecutors with the attorney general’s Organized Crime Unit, which is prosecuting the case, disclosed Greene’s concern to the defense in the gang case.

Ravenell seized on the disclosure by arguing that the errors in the affidavits related to the gang case compounded previous concerns about Boles’ truthfulness in a past warrant.

Assistant Attorney General Zachary Norfolk said in court his office notified appropriate authorities about the allegations surrounding Boles’ warrants.

A sheriff’s office spokeswoman, Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, said the agency is conducting an internal investigation into Boles. She said Boles is working full duty. Tapp-Harper declined to comment further.

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Spokespersons for the attorney general and U.S. Attorney’s offices declined to comment. A DEA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Boles could not be reached for comment.

To get access to Johnson’s private Instagram messages in 2019, Boles had to convince a judge that those communications were likely to yield evidence of crimes.

Several of Johnson’s public Instagram posts featured the acronym, “SBGF,” and Boles wrote in an Aug. 16, 2019, affidavit that he believed that was code for the “South Baltimore Black Guerilla Family,” neglecting to acknowledge that many of Johnson’s posts promoting performances or newly released music spelled out the acronym “South Baltimore Godfather,” his rap nickname.

In another portion of the affidavit, Boles referenced a call between someone who was in jail and an associate of Johnson’s, who was in his presence. Johnson could be heard telling the person in jail to “check the scoreboard,” according to court records.

Boles wrote that he believed Johnson and his friend were “bragging about people whom they may have killed or harmed by violence.”

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In an affidavit for a digital wiretap to monitor Johnson’s Instagram messages, Boles, a Maryland State Police trooper and a DEA agent attested they reviewed the cellphone records for Johnson and another man. They wrote those records showed Johnson and his associate were near a suspected drug stash house when they received the call from the person in jail.

Experts for prosecution and defense attorneys agreed the investigators’ interpretation of the phone records were wrong, and the phones were in a different location at the time in question.

Ravenell argued Boles lied or stretched facts in affidavits to portray Johnson as being affiliated with a violent gang to persuade judges to issue a warrant, which they did at least three times. Ravenell focused his argument on the misstated acronym, arguing that because Boles originally linked Johnson to a faction of the Black Guerilla Family, his interpretations of Johnson’s statements as violence- or gang-related likely swayed the judge.

“We’re talking about intentional falsehoods,” Ravenell told Schiffer on Monday. “I would bet that if (the federal judges) knew what you know now, they would not have signed these warrants.”

“Sloppy and negligent, sure,” Norfolk said later, “but that’s not the standard we’re dealing with.”

After finding the defense had presented legitimate allegations about Boles’ honesty in affidavits, Schiffer granted what’s called a “Franks hearing” to determine whether the warrants should stand.

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Veteran defense attorney Warren Brown, who is not involved in the gang case, said it’s unusual for the defense to move for a Franks hearing, much less have one granted.

”It’s kind of difficult to come up with the information that a police officer lied in the affidavit,” Brown said. “You may have suspicions, but it’s hard to prove.”

In court, Schiffer’s preliminary ruling allowed the defense to summon witnesses. Ravenell called Greene, probing her about why she raised concerns about Boles.

Greene testified she reviewed a warrant Boles wrote, in an unrelated case, that included his transcription of a jail call. When she listened to a recording of the call, she said, she disagreed with what Boles had transcribed. Greene recalled telling Boles he “heard what he wanted to hear” and he agreed during their conversation.

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The prosecution called Boles, who accused Greene of lying.

Boles testified botching the acronym was an “honest mistake” based on his assumption. He said he stood by his interpretations of Johnson’s statements being related to violence or gang activity.

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Brown said officers should clearly differentiate in their affidavit what they know and what they suspect based on their experience and training.

“You see a guy go into an apartment building with a bag and he left without the bag, you assume he left it in the building,” Brown said. “But to assume he left it in any specific apartment, therein lies the problem.”

Ravenell showed Boles several printouts of photos from Johnson’s Instagram that featured the words “South Baltimore Godfather.” He testified he never noticed the nickname before authoring the affidavit. After it was approved, he said, a city police detective told him about Johnson’s nickname. He corrected it in subsequent sworn court documents.

“I felt stupid: ‘Oh, South Baltimore Godfather. That’s what it means,’” Boles testified.

He then apologized to the judge.


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