Keeping cops honest: Video recording exposes a bad drug bust

Chicago Tribune: April 26th, 2014

The scene could have come from a particularly dramatic episode of “The Good Wife.” In the felony trial of a man found with up to a pound of marijuana in his car, five police officers recounted how correct procedures were followed in the stop and ensuing search. Then the defense submitted a video of the encounter – which appeared to show the opposite.

The furious judge threw out the evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges, and the defendant went free. Cook County Circuit Judge Catherine Haberkorn made her displeasure clear.

“Obviously, this is very outrageous conduct,” she declared in court. “All officers lied on the stand today. … Many, many, many, many times they all lied.”

The five officers who allegedly joined together in perpetrating this ruse include three from Chicago and two from Glenview. All have been relieved of their police powers and assigned to desk duty.

The Chicago Police Department is conducting an investigation, while the Glenview Police Department declines to comment. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office, which has not filed charges against the cops, says it is investigating. The defendant, Joseph Sperling, has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the officers of conspiring to lie under oath.

We haven’t seen all the evidence and won’t judge anybody. But let us offer a suggestion. No one entrusted to serve as a police officer should ignore the law on permissible stops or searches, and any cop who does so and lies about it under oath should never again wear a badge. Nor should perjurers who try to foment injustice get a break from prosecutors.

We emphasize that no one has been charged, and that any actions by these officers are their responsibility. But you can’t escape that this is one of those cases that shake confidence in the people who are entrusted with police power — enormous power and responsibility.

The police, who had Sperling under surveillance, said they pulled him over in Glenview for failure to use his turn signal and then found marijuana in a backpack lying on the back seat of his car. The suspect admitted having the cannabis but said he had used his turn signal and had hidden the backpack under a seat.

One of the Chicago officers allegedly asked Glenview officers to turn off their video cameras for the stop. But one camera wasn’t switched off.

Chicago Officer William Pruente testified he smelled pot after asking Sperling for his license and registration. Then, he said, he asked the driver to step out of the car, searched it and handcuffed him upon finding the marijuana.

The video recording suggests that Pruente ordered Sperling out of the car immediately and that other cops handcuffed Sperling before the vehicle was searched.

The difference in those accounts is the difference between a permissible search and an illegitimate one, which is why the judge said the evidence could not be used.

It would also explain why the cops allegedly falsified their account: They knew they had stepped over the line, and they wanted the conviction regardless.

It’s a temptation every officer faces at some time or another. The honest ones scrupulously follow the law and, when they don’t, acknowledge their mistakes. But some cops — no one knows how many — are willing to do whatever they think is necessary to catch and punish crooks.

That’s why video cameras mounted on squad car dashboards or carried in officers’ lapels are so valuable and deserve wider use.

The only police hurt by video cameras are the ones who have something to hide. The good ones, when wrongly accused of misconduct, are vindicated by this type of evidence. And the ones on the fence get a nudge from knowing that someone will be watching.


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