Reuters reported a few days ago on a recent set of court orders from a federal judge in West Virginia finding a troubling pattern of illegal search warrants obtained by drug task force officers.
In December, Goodwin issued an order suppressing evidence seized from a house in 2021. The judge questioned the accuracy of certain statements made by law enforcement in an affidavit to obtain a search warrant of the defendant’s house. The government has since filed a new indictment.
After the judge issued the suppression order, the U.S. attorney’s office sent two investigators to interview the state magistrate judge who issued the search warrant. Goodwin said it was “improper” for investigators to seek such an interview and for the judge to entertain it.
“It is inherently intimidating to send federal officers to question a state magistrate judge,” Goodwin wrote, “and it is clearly out of bounds for the magistrate judge to provide the interview regarding his judicial decision-making in a matter pending before this court.”
Reuters published yet another article today expanding on the earlier report, noting that more than one federal judge in West Virginia, as well as a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that this particular drug task force in West Virginia has been engaged in unconstitutional violations pertaining to search warrants.
Goodwin, in fact, has criticized the practices of the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network (MDENT) in particular in at least three other decisions since 2017, a review of court records shows. The MDENT is composed of officers from agencies including the Charleston Police and Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the state police.
The judge tossed out evidence in a drug case last year, holding that the Charleston Police, MDENT, and a Kanawha County magistrate had again failed to respect constitutional limits on searches and seizures. The MDENT’s warrant was based on “unsourced and undescribed” information that someone was selling drugs and the discovery of three marijuana stems in the trash from that person’s home – which the judge said was clearly insufficient.
“I fear this is becoming a pattern,” Goodwin wrote on April 28, 2021, pointing to a similar ruling in another MDENT case from a week earlier.
The MDENT has also been admonished for what courts described as open and purposeful disregard of the legal limits on searches and seizures by at least one other judge of the Southern District of West Virginia, and in a unanimous opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
This is the same federal court who presided over the Keith Sizemore case I litigated, where the Court denied a police officer qualified immunity in a civil rights lawsuit for providing false information in a search warrant application.
What you’re about to see, demonstrated in black and white courtesy of the federal judiciary, is proof of a pattern and practice of police misconduct. This is a documented pattern of Fourth Amendment violations, where drug task force officers knowingly violate the Constitution, with the complicity, or ignorance, of multiple state-level magistrate judges, who are not required to have law degrees to hold office, and who generally don’t. Moreover, many times the state-level magistrates, elected in countywide elections, are themselves retired law enforcement officers.
West Virginia is in serious need of search warrant reform. By the way, federal investigators in West Virginia, so I’m told, are required to go to Circuit Court judges, rather than magistrates, in federal criminal investigations in West Virginia.
Here’s the Court’s ruling on the motion for reconsideration in the case of U.S. v. Lark, as cited in the Reuters article:
Here’s the original suppression order which the government was seeking reconsideration in the Lark case. Note that the federal prosecutors here are not interested in actually having the Court reconsider the admissibility of the evidence, but rather solely with the career prospects of the police officer found by the federal judge to have provided false information in a search warrant application:
Here are the other suppression orders to which the Court referred in the Lark orders, of which I’m aware.
Here’s the suppression order from the Keith Sizemore case, to which I referred earlier. This was the criminal case:
And here’s the opinion from the subsequent civil lawsuit. Note that this was a different drug task force than is featured in the other opinions, but same federal Court, and same underlying issues:
It would be interesting to find out if a single one of these police officers who were determined by the federal judiciary to have provided false information in a search warrant application were ever thereafter placed on a “Brady List” for disclosure to criminal defendants in cases involving these officers…..
Update, 3/17/22: The West Virginia Record reported that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia has an open investigation into the matter.
Deanna Eder, public affairs officer for Thompson, declined to comment in the pending case. But she did issue a statement to The West Virginia Record about Goodwin’s concerns.
“Upon taking office on October 13, 2021, U.S. Will Thompson began a thorough review of all of his office’s policies and procedures to determine what, if any, changes were needed,” Eder told The Record. “The United States Attorney served as a state circuit court judge for almost 15 years prior to his role as U.S. Attorney and brings that experience analyzing constitutional and suppression issues to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“As a result of his review of policies and procedures, and prior to the order in the Lark case, U.S. Attorney Thompson implemented a new process for reviewing search warrant applications. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has reviewed the court’s order in the Lark matter and takes the Court’s concerns seriously.”