Hundreds of cases involving LAPD officers accused of corruption now under review
Hundreds of criminal cases involving three city police officers charged earlier this month with falsifying evidence are now under review by prosecutors after corruption allegations sparked questions about whether their past police work could be suspect.
Prosecutors are already analyzing pending cases to determine if they can move forward on the strength of evidence other than the charged officers’ testimony, but past cases and convictions — including those based on plea deals — could also be revisited, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said.
Her office is sending letters to more than 750 defendants whose cases listed one or more of the charged officers as potential witnesses, urging them or their attorneys to contact her office if they feel the officers’ involvement was prejudicial or merits further review.
Defendants who were convicted in cases involving officers Braxton Shaw, Michael Coblentz or Nicolas Martinez “should contact us for more information, so that together we can make a determination as to whether their conviction should stand,” Lacey said.
She said prosecutors would prioritize any cases in which the defendants are incarcerated.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the officers’ actions, because it does affect the criminal justice system and it affects how people view the criminal justice system — whether they have faith in it or not,” Lacey said. “I take it seriously.”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore called the review “appropriate.”
“An officer’s most critical value, aside from their heart and their compassion for people and dedication for service, is their integrity,” he said. “When that’s lost, it jeopardizes everything they’ve touched.”
The reviews are the latest step by law enforcement officials to address a scandal that broke earlier this year, involving LAPD officers allegedly identifying people they stopped as gang members or associates on field interview cards without evidence. Criminal justice reform advocates say such labels can follow people through their lives and hurt their ability to find employment and housing.
Lacey’s office filed a 59-count complaint earlier this month charging Shaw, Coblentz and Martinez with conspiracy to obstruct justice and multiple counts of filing false reports and preparing false evidence. Prosecutors alleged the officers wrote on field cards that people had admitted to being gang members when body-camera footage showed no such admissions or showed the individuals had explicitly denied gang affiliation.
Shaw is accused of falsifying 43 cards, Coblentz of falsifying seven and Martinez of falsifying two.
However, Lacey’s review goes far beyond those incidents, to include felony cases from the start of the officers’ careers. For Shaw, that is 206 cases involving 256 defendants since February 2009, according to district attorney records obtained by The Times. For Coblentz, that is 296 cases involving 345 defendants since July 2002. For Martinez, that is 122 cases involving 157 defendants since September 2010.
The officers, who were all assigned to the LAPD’s elite Metro Division, handled a range of cases, up to and including homicides.
Shaw’s credibility came into question in 2015 when a prosecutor discovered video from an LAPD patrol car that contradicted testimony Shaw gave about a weapons arrest. The following year, a judge tossed out an unrelated firearm case after prosecutors disclosed their investigation of Shaw.
Attorneys for the officers did not respond to requests for comment. Greg Yacoubian, an attorney for Shaw, has previously said Shaw did nothing wrong, and followed directions from his commanders.
While prosecutors are proactively reviewing pending cases, Lacey said it will be “more efficient” in closed cases for her office to wait on defense counsel to “tell us whether they wish to have it reopened or re-examined.”
For those cases in which the charged officers are major witnesses, Lacey said prosecutors will determine whether dismissal is “in the interest of justice.”
However, Lacey said many criminal cases are built on evidence beyond the word of individual officers, and it’s possible that few will be undone.
“It may be that the officers, although listed as a subpoenaed witness, may not have witnessed anything, may not be a key player, or there may be other witnesses who corroborated that a crime occurred,” Lacey said.
Moore said he is confident the state “does not just have to rely on those officers’ accounts” to prove many of the cases identified.
Defense attorneys who specialize in gang cases, however, suggested the impact of the officers’ alleged actions goes beyond guilt or innocence, including by serving as the basis for labeling defendants as gang members, which can lead to harsher sentences.
Stephen Kahn, a Beverly Hills defense attorney who specializes in gang and felony cases, said those harsher sentences could also require a remedy if the officers’ testimony was found to be crucial to the filing of an enhancement. Inaccurate gang pronouncements, he said, leave defendants at a steep disadvantage at trial.
“It implies that he’s a bad guy, and therefore, he’s guilty. It really changes the whole tenor of the case,” Kahn said. “It makes it harder to ever settle the case. It forces these people, most of whom have public defenders … to take a deal. And a lot of people plead to things that they would not have plead to, but for the gang allegations.”
In addition to the Metro scandal, a 2016 audit of the statewide CalGang database found the LAPD was one of several agencies that “could not substantiate” the reasons it had added people. In 2018, a federal judge barred the LAPD from enforcing most of the city’s gang injunctions — which restrict movements of suspected gang members — by ruling the department had violated the individuals’ due process rights.
Lacey, who has been criticized as being weak in holding officers accountable and faces stiff competition from challenger George Gascón in the district attorney race in November, said her prosecutors use a range of sources and information beyond that provided by the LAPD to verify gang affiliations — including “tattoos and Facebook posts” — and will continue to do so to seek higher sentences fairly.
“Gang crime does happen and there are innocent people who are living in communities who want prosecutors to address gang crime,” Lacey said. “For me, the bottom line is: Be careful with this evidence. Make sure you have enough evidence to prove that someone did something for the benefit of a gang. You shouldn’t just charge these gang enhancements without really checking it out.”
In addition to Shaw, Coblentz and Martinez, more than 20 other LAPD officers are under investigation in the field card scandal. If any are criminally charged, their past cases may also be reviewed, Lacey said.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, said Lacey’s review falls far short of what’s necessary to mitigate misconduct that likely goes beyond the three charged officers. Instead of putting the onus on defendants to repair a mistake caused by officer misconduct, Bibring suggested her office’s Conviction Review Unit initiate a case audit.
“Just simply notifying defense attorneys in cases where these specific cops testified definitely doesn’t get at the harm this scandal has caused,” he said.
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