ST. LOUIS - Prosecutors are quietly dropping criminal cases that depend upon the word of two St. Louis police officers accused of lying on search warrant applications, according to defense lawyers and court records.
Officers Shell Sharp and William Noonan are now working in an "administrative capacity," the department said. Neither has been charged with any crime. They did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The allegations are another blow for the department, which has seen five other officers indicted since December. Two of those five were accused late last year of planting evidence, stealing money and dealing drugs, which prompted a review of over 1,000 of their cases. One was accused in January of improperly checking a police database for a friend. One was accused on March 31 of perjury. And the fifth was accused Thursday of theft.
A separate federal investigation continues into a long relationship between the department and St. Louis Metropolitan Towing, a private business, that was ended after a Post-Dispatch investigation revealed abuses last year.
Until Sharp was transferred to the communications division in February, he worked drug cases in a "weed and seed" unit. Until this month, when Noonan was transferred to prisoner processing, he was in the 5th District on anti-drug and anti-gang assignments. They were not partners.
Their accusers have not said the officers received any benefit, except to suggest they cut corners to make their work easier.
But if proven, the allegations made in court filings against Sharp and Noonan could spark a wider review and a flurry of civil suits and appeals of convictions.
Police Chief Dan Isom declined to comment on specifics but acknowledged there is a formal investigation into search warrant practices of some officers. He would not characterize the scope of the inquiry.
A defense lawyer familiar with the situation, Eric Barnhart, said if it's true that police have lied on affidavits, "the whole system is in trouble. Cops lying. Innocent people are charged. Sometimes innocent people plead guilty because they're scared of losing a trial."
There is no way to know how many prosecutions have been dropped, because of state rules sealing closed criminal court cases. Prosecutors declined to say, citing the investigation and privacy laws.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said, "I can tell you generally that if I don't have confidence in a witness, I will not go forward with a case."
Catherine Hanaway, whose term as U.S. attorney ends today, would not discuss the officers.
The warrants at issue, all filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, yielded evidence for criminal charges in both circuit and federal courts here. Altogether, about 500 search warrants were filed in the city last year.
At least six Noonan or Sharp cases with search warrants have been dropped, according to defense attorneys and available records.
In addition, defense lawyers Kristy Ridings and Nellie Ribaudo said they each represent a defendant whose criminal case involved Sharp and was dismissed by prosecutors without explanation. Neither involved search warrants.
Yet some cases involving Noonan are moving forward, including two in federal court last week in which the defendants pleaded guilty.
THE SHARP CASES
On Nov. 29, 2007, Sharp and other officers served a search warrant in the 3800 block of Folsom Avenue.
In the affidavit that Sharp signed to obtain it, he told a prosecutor and judge that a confidential source told him the suspect was a crack and heroin dealer who supplied other dealers. The officer swore he watched the house on three consecutive days and spotted drug activity. On the third day, Nov. 28, the source allegedly told Sharp of being inside the house and spotting a large quantity of drugs.
The next day, police knocked, waited, then used a battering ram to smash open the door and tossed a "flash-bang" distraction grenade inside. Officers handcuffed the suspect and three elderly men. Sharp found crack, marijuana, a pistol and two digital scales, according to an inventory later returned to the court. He arrested the suspect.
There was only one problem with what looked like a solid case: Of 21 search warrant affidavits Sharp signed in 2007-08 that were obtained and reviewed by the Post-Dispatch, he outlined the same pattern of events in all but one.
Information about how and when Sharp was contacted by his source, what he was told, the timing of his surveillance and what he saw while watching had varied little, if at all.
In almost every case, he watched for three consecutive days, one or two hours a day. Each time, he saw three to six people visit and speak directly to a suspect, either conducting hand-to-hand transactions on the porch or briefly stepping inside.
This was different from the experience of his partner, Officer Mike Mathews. A newspaper review showed that circumstances on Matthews' warrant requests and their outcomes varied much more.
Unlike Mathews, records show, Sharp always spotted suspected drug activity during surveillance and never came up empty during a search. Sharp didn't serve every warrant, but whenever he did, he seized contraband, like guns or drugs.
Lawyers take note
Assistant Federal Defender Diane Dragan reviewed many of the same warrants last year, after prosecutors mistakenly provided her with a Sharp warrant in a case she wasn't handling. When she got the right one, she immediately noticed the similarities. She came across another of his warrants that week.
"I had three Shell Sharp affidavits, all of which were identical," she said in a recent interview.
She then asked around her office and got two more.
In court filings, she accused Sharp of lying about the existence of the source and the details of his surveillance. She also accused him of changing his story when confronted in court.
"It appears that Officer Sharp uses the same search warrant over and over changing only the address, name of the suspect and minor details. Nothing in his testimony supports the assertion that the affidavit was based on true facts," Dragan wrote in one filing.
She said her client faced a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison if convicted. But the U.S. attorney's office dismissed the charge before U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry Adelman could rule on Dragan's motion to toss out the evidence.
Adelman and the prosecutor, Jeannette Graviss, both declined comment.
The Noonan Cases
Recognition of a problem with Noonan's warrants started with a St. Louis public defender named Richard Kroeger, who had heard about Dragan's experience with Sharp.
Kroeger had a case in which he felt the search warrant affidavit seemed "inconsistent" with what officers actually found. It had suggested that Kroeger's client and a co-defendant were selling large quantities of drugs. But, the lawyer said, searching officers recovered only an "off-white chunk," a crack pipe, some pills and some drug paraphernalia.
He said he found similar language in multiple Noonan affidavits. When he used a marker to black out the standard language, Kroeger said, there was nothing left but names, personal information and addresses.
The circuit attorney's office dropped that case after Kroeger filed a motion March 11 alleging that at least eight Noonan affidavits contained identical information. "It is impossible that the exact circumstances occurred in every case in which this officer has sought a search warrant," the lawyer wrote.
Barnhart, the attorney who represented the co-defendant in that case, said his client was at work some of the days Noonan claimed to be watching the house. But the lawyer said the warrant affidavit lacked enough detail to challenge. Once the pattern among multiple affidavits was recognized, he said, "all of a sudden, you have ammunition."
There were other problems, Kroeger said. Noonan claimed to have watched the house on June 11, 2007, a day his time sheet says he was on vacation. And Kroeger said he has concerns about a deposition by Noonan on Feb. 9, during which he was asked about his surveillance.
The Post-Dispatch also obtained and reviewed Noonan's search warrants. Seven of 21 affidavits that led to permission to search nine apartments or homes in 2007 and 2008 are almost identical, except for a suspect's name, address and other personal information and the drugs allegedly being dealt. Some of the other affidavits contain very similar language and others are radically different.
Checks and balances
To seek permission to search private property, a police officer must swear to the truth of observations that support a belief there is evidence of a crime inside. Each application is guided by a prosecutor and must be signed by a judge.
Search warrant honesty has been at issue from time to time around the country. Philadelphia has an investigation in progress. In Atlanta, three officers pleaded guilty to federal charges that they conspired to falsify warrant information, including a 2006 search in which a woman, 92, was shot to death in her home. The FBI there spoke of the "danger posed to innocent citizens."
In St. Louis, at least six judges and 12 prosecutors had signed off on Sharp's warrants, making it difficult for the gatekeepers to spot a pattern.
A busy prosecutor or judge may see a given officer only a couple of times, noted Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University. "Police and prosecutors are on the same team," he explained, and there's no reason to be suspicious "until something bad happens"
But Joy also said, "Prosecutors are not supposed to be rubber stamps to whatever the police hand them."
The circuit attorney's chief warrant officer, Ed Postawko, would not discuss Noonan or Sharp specifics. But generally, he said, there is no "checklist" or "magic formula" for what an officer needs to include in the affidavit. Missouri law simply calls for "probable cause."
Speaking generally, Chief Isom said that while warrants may necessarily contain some common elements, "it shouldn't all be the same house, or the same time, or the same people described. There should be variations from search warrant to search warrant."
He said he knew when he became chief last year that he needed to "shore up" the search warrant process. He promised reforms within weeks to better review affidavits, and a central system to track confidential informers. He also said officers will face tighter standards, barring them from doing surveillance while off duty.
Meanwhile, Mark Byrne, a lawyer who defended a client who pleaded guilty in state and federal court in cases involving a Sharp warrant, said he hopes that prosecutors review all convictions involving the officers.
Regardless, he said, in any pending Sharp or Noonan case, "I'm going to argue every single time that every piece of evidence ... is tainted."
Documents in question • Check out copies of affidavits filed by officers Sharp and Noonan in support of search warrants. STLtoday.com/crime
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