In 2009, a woman was forced to spend 80 days in jail after being arrested on bogus drug dealing charges. While the charges were eventually dropped, allowing her to enjoy her freedom once again, the damage had already been done. When she left the prison, she walked out of her jail cell a free woman without a job.
The officer involved in this incident might now have to pay the price for his mistakes — a dream come true for criminal justice reform advocates who believe that officers operate with all the wrong incentives in mind since they are allowed to continue to make mistakes by being granted immunity.
The chain of events leading to the wrongful arrest started in March of 2009 when officer Jason Munday conducted an undercover investigation using a confidential informant.
The informant was wired with video and audio recorders. Giving the man $60, the officer told him to go to 728 East Pine Street to purchase crack cocaine from two individuals. After the exchange, the informant walked back to the officer and told him that he had purchased the illicit drug from April Smith, a black woman.
Since the audio recorder used in this transaction wasn’t fitted with batteries prior to the whole incident, it didn’t work and produced no audio recordings. On top of that, the camera used by the informant was pointing in the wrong direction, making it impossible for the officer to recognize the drug dealer. Instead of filming the transaction, the footage simply showed an unidentified black woman sitting on a front porch, while two others stand.
All the officer had was hearsay and a name. A name that could have easily been fabricated by the drug dealer in an attempt to shield her identity.
Regardless, the lack of evidence didn’t bother the officer. Instead of discarding what he had obtained, he started scanning police databases for anyone fitting the bill. When he found a black woman with a criminal record named April Yvette Smith, he didn’t flinch. That was his dealer, he thought to himself.
She had been convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1993, 1997, and 2005, but she wasn’t the only one. He also found other two April Smiths with criminal records in the same county. Even though he had no reason to believe that the dealer he was going after had, indeed, a criminal record. He also had no reason to believe that the dealer was a resident of that county. Again, nothing stopped the officer. Instead of further investigating, Munday decided to apply for an arrest warrant, picking one of the April Smiths he had found.
Nine months later, the officer found Smith about eleven miles away from the site where the drug deal had taken place.
The woman spent the next 80 days in jail, afraid she would be prosecuted for a crime she hadn’t committed.
When Smith sought justice, the court granted the officer immunity by claiming that he had enough reason to believe she could have been the dealer involved in the transaction. Thankfully, the Appeals Court disagreed.
According to the court, the officer ignored the fact that having a name in common with a potential criminal is not enough to establish probable cause, meaning that what the officer did was wrong. Concluding that the officer did not have enough information to apply for a warrant, the Appeals Court called out on the officer for failing to perform any investigative work prior to the arrest. And as a result, Munday has now been stripped of his immunity, opening the way for a lawsuit.
Removing responsibility away from the individual’s hands allows him to operate without having the burden of responding to his actions. When officers are granted immunity in similar cases, they tend to forget that their actions have reactions. Unless we begin holding everyone accountable — regardless of employment status — we’ll never be able to see a change in the culture of abuse. Will this case help to change this environment for good?