A recent investigation by Reuters reveals that a top-secret branch of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been funneling information collected for purposes of national security to local law enforcement officials investigating routine domestic drug offenses.
Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys know that what is even worse, the DEA has been instructing local officials to conceal how they received their information in the first place. This is a major violation of defendants’ constitutional rights, as it deprives their defense team of the opportunity to fully explore the possibility of exculpatory evidence.
Exculpatory evidence is any kind of evidence or information in a criminal case that could be beneficial to the defense team. It includes evidence that might justify or excuse your actions or that could eliminate you as a suspect altogether.
One of the key ways your defense team will glean exculpatory evidence is through disclosures from the prosecution about evidence that was obtained.
Some examples of what might constitute exculpatory evidence:
- A witness to the crime says she saw someone else do it.
- A fingerprint lifted from the weapon used in the crime did not match the defendant.
- Footage from security surveillance that indicates events unfolded differently than a witness or officer describes.
The importance of exculpatory evidence in a criminal case can’t be understated. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors are obligated to turn over all evidence- exculpatory or otherwise – to the defense prior to trial. Failing to disclose information to the defense can result in a successful defense motion to suppress, a mistrial or having a conviction overturned upon appeal.
Penalties for drug crimes in Alabama tend to be extremely high, which means that your attorney is going to want to avail you of every possible opportunity to strengthen your chances of a favorable outcome. But if your lawyer doesn’t know how evidence was obtained, it significantly reduces that opportunity.
That’s what makes the findings regarding the DEA so troubling.
It involves a secretive branch of the agency called the Special Operations Division. This division consists of personnel from the National Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
What has been happening is a kind of information sharing which legal scholars say is highly inappropriate. So for example, information is obtained from the National Security Information, which is charged with protecting national security interests. However, the information collected has nothing to do with national security. Rather, as an example, it has to do with a drug deal suspected of pending in Dallas, TX. This information is obtained through warrantless wiretaps, intelligence intercepts or informants. That information is passed to the DEA via the SOD. The DEA then informs the local law enforcement agency of this information.
However, rather than provide a full detail of how the information came to be collected, the officials will simply say, “Be at this location at this time and look for this vehicle.” Officers will then find a reason to stop that vehicle and search it.
SOD officials have been instructing local officials on how to “recreate” how they came to know about the situation in the first place. For example, officers will pretend that their investigation started with a routine traffic stop. However, that is flat-out false.
A number of laws and rights are potentially violated through these methods.
Even if the evidence found subsequently was legitimate, if the evidence that resulted in probable cause was not, it could open the window for the defense to challenge it. They can’t do this, however, if they don’t know about it.
Former federal judges and legal scholars interviewed by Reuters had reactions ranging from shock and dismay to outrage. One former federal judge called these alleged practices a means of “phonying up” the investigation. It ultimately compromises the integrity of the system overall.