Sep 3 2013

Lowell police sued for framing people using informants who planted drugs

Dr. Q

The Boston Globe reports:

A Lowell man is expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Lowell and a Lowell police officer who relied on two informants suspected of planting drugs on dozens of innocent victims, a scandal that already has led prosecutors to drop charges in 17 pending drug and firearm cases and to overturn two convictions.

Jonathan Santiago, a 25-year-old with no prior drug convictions whose case was among those dismissed, said an informant planted cocaine in the gas cap compartment of his car in February 2012, then alerted police, who arrested him. He said police then filed a false report that concealed the informant’s role.

“I just couldn’t believe it — that law enforcement would actually do something like this,” Santiago said in a Globe interview, adding that his arrest, jailing, and ensuing legal ordeal changed his life. “I pretty much stay home now. I don’t go out anymore. I feel like I can’t trust anyone.”

Santiago’s lawsuit says that scores of others may have suffered a similar fate, noting that one of the informants has been working with Lowell police for the last decade — the arresting officer in Santiago’s case alone has testified to using the informant in more than 50 cases. The lawsuit also says that “Lowell police officers allowed [the informant] to commit crimes because he assisted them as an informant.”

Neither the police officer, veteran Detective Thomas Lafferty, nor a spokesman for the Lowell police would address the specific allegations in the federal lawsuit, referring questions to the city’s legal department. Lowell’s chief legal official, City Solicitor Christine O’Connor, was unavailable for comment.

Defense lawyers said the allegations in the lawsuit echo disclosures in the case of Annie Dookhan, the state chemist whose allegedly faked drug analyses were used to obtain convictions that have now been overturned, and the trial of notorious gangster James “Whitey’ Bulger, who Bulger asserts was allowed by his FBI handlers to commit crimes in exchange for providing information on other criminals.

The Santiago lawsuit alleges “the widespread misuse of confidential informants in the Lowell Police Department” and a “policy or custom of tolerating violations of people’s constitutional rights in order to obtain convictions.”

Middlesex prosecutors dropped charges or vacated convictions against Santiago and 18 other defendants earlier this year after one of the informants advertised his services to the Massachusetts State Police and “boasted about his skill and experience in planting evidence,” citing specific examples of his work with the other informant on behalf of Lowell police, according to the lawsuit.

The ordeal began after he left a friend’s apartment and encountered one of the informants, an acquaintance, who asked him to join him at a local bar for a drink, but insisted that he take his own car.

Lafferty and two other officers were waiting for Santiago and pulled him over, later asserting in a police report that Santiago had been swerving in the vehicle and circling the neighborhood “like a drug dealer.” Santiago said those assertions were false.

“To make it appear that they independently found the drugs,” the lawsuit says, “Lafferty called in a police dog to search Mr. Santiago’s car,” and the dog led officers to the gas cap compartment of Santiago’s car.

After opening the compartment, the lawsuit says, Lafferty and the other officers found nearly 27 grams of cocaine and booked Santiago on charges of cocaine trafficking and cocaine trafficking in a school zone, because Lafferty and the other officers “chose to stop Mr. Santiago’s car as he was driving near a school.”

Santiago was facing a mandatory five-year prison term when the charges against him were suddenly dropped.

When Santiago’s public defender, Julie Olsen, asked why, prosecutors told her there was a problem with the informant, which she said was the first time she realized an informant was involved in the case.

Looking back, Santiago said he was particularly traumatized at the thought of what his two young girls would think. “I wouldn’t want them to see me in prison. I wouldn’t want them to see me in that state,” he said.