As a criminal defense lawyer, I spend a lot of time arguing with cops. It comes with the job. People think we’re on opposite sides of the law, but that’s not really true. We’re both supposed to be upholding the laws, even if we do it in different ways.
So when police officers suddenly find themselves in need of the types of services I provide, I always take notice. Last month, an Annapolis police officer was “charged with one count of a felony theft scheme for stealing more than $3,600 from an Arbutus Walmart Supercenter between February and March,” per the Capital Gazette. They got him on camera stealing – and I quote – “55-inch TVs, diapers, a children’s movie, dog food, soda, printers, a Roomba vacuum, clothes, medicine and two AC units.” He put all the stuff in his unmarked car while wearing his “Police” vest.
This isn’t some noob, either. This guy has a background in Baltimore Police Department’s Gang Unit and served as a police officer in Baltimore schools. He’s a detective been doing cold case files by choice for the last few years. I mean, this is no slouch. He’s the real deal.
But sometimes the good guys turn out to be the “bad” guys, right?
Yeah. I don’t think so, either.
Something isn’t right, here
I’m not saying the detective didn’t steal all that stuff, or didn’t commit felony theft (defined as the theft of goods or services worth between $1500 and $25,000, which is a pretty giant window if you ask me). I wasn’t there, so I don’t know, and there doesn’t seem to be any news about whether he admitted to the crime. But there are two things that really pop for me:
- Why is a detective in the Annapolis police department moonlighting as a security guard in the first place?
- Why does his list of stolen items contain things you get at a grocery store, like dog food and diapers?
And I guess there’s a third thing: what security guard doesn’t know there are security cameras watching his every move?
So something doesn’t seem right about this whole situation. And that, perhaps, is the difference between our two types of law enforcement: police are charged with stopping crimes and finding the people who commit them. Criminal defense lawyers are duty-bound to defend the accused, even when the accused are allegedly caught committing a crime while wearing a vest that says “Police” in full view of security cameras that, as a security guard, they would completely know were there.
Let’s talk about video evidence for a minute
This whole case hinges on the security cameras, right? They supposedly got the guy on camera. There’s an unmarked car and a vest. They have everything they need.
But do they? Do they really? I mean, have you ever SEEN surveillance video? Because despite what you see in movies, it’s not all that easy to enhance grainy footage. If it’s far away or the lighting is poor, of the camera is not strong, there may be no way to really see who it is. As How-to Geek explains, “Remember, pixels are data. If that data isn’t there, you can’t conjure it out of nowhere. You can’t somehow process a grainy thumbnail-shaped bit of imagery into an high-resolution masterpiece, bringing to light the various minuscule blemishes that ultimately form part of a person’s identity.”
But let’s say that a company like Walmart has better footage than the typical CCTV footage, and that you can remove the grain and make it clearer. This is still no guarantee that the images you are seeing are what the forensics unit says they are. A report by ProPublica regarding image analysis by the FBI found that there is no scientific foundation for the work, and that the techniques used are unreliable:
FBI examiners have tied defendants to crime pictures in thousands of cases over the past half-century using unproven techniques, at times giving jurors baseless statistics to say the risk of error was vanishingly small. Much of the legal foundation for the unit’s work is rooted in a 22-year-old comparison of blue jeans. Studies on several photo comparison techniques, conducted over the last decade by the FBI and outside scientists, have found they are not reliable.
Since those studies were published, there’s no indication that lab officials have checked past casework for errors or inaccurate testimony. Image examiners continue to use disputed methods in an array of cases to bolster prosecutions against people accused of robberies, murder, sex crimes and terrorism….
Though image examiners rely on similarly flawed methods [of pattern matching], they have continued to testify to and defend their exactitude, according to a review of court records and examiners’ written reports and published articles.
In other words, what you see isn’t always what is there. And while I don’t know if that’s what happened here, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, video proof isn’t proof at all.
I keep coming back to the list of allegedly stolen items
Diapers are expensive. So is dog food, if you have more than one doggo at home.
Yeah, yeah – the TVs, the Roomba. I get it.
But the medicine.
Criminal defense lawyers are the butt of a lot of jokes – and believe me, no one likes a good lawyer joke more than me. But the truth is, people who go into my line of law have a lot of compassion for the people we help, even the ones who committed the crimes. Most criminal activity is born of opportunity, or lack thereof (depending on your POV). The list of items wasn’t limited to TVs and tech. It had diapers, medicine, and a children’s movie. That speaks to a much different issue. And it requires that we take a long, hard look at what motivates people to steal in the first place – especially when the accused has so, so much to lose.
A felony charge means jail time. It means a violation of an ethics code. It means you’ll lose your professional license, your security clearance, and your right to carry a firearm. You cannot be a cop if you can’t carry a gun. Who takes that kind of risk for $3600 worth of grocery store items? Who risks a career and a solid reputation for a vacuum and some clothes?
I won’t pretend to know what really happened there, or why this respected officer supposedly acted as he did. I just think there’s a deeper, sadder story here that’s worth knowing before we all rush to judgment.
At Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, we believe in getting the whole story so we can craft a stronger, more personalized defense for our clients. If you were charged with a theft crime or a felony crime of any kind, we’ve got your back. Call us in Annapolis or Ellicott City at 410-271-1892, or fill out our contact form to schedule a consultation.
And remember — Keep Calm and Call Drew.