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Some convicted by West Valley drug unit want their cases reviewed

Embattled department places 7 more officers on administrative leave

Published: Wednesday, April 17 2013 7:20 p.m. MDT

West Valley police officers investigate the officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012. The department's disbanded narcotics unit is under investigation for allegations of corruption.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has already dismissed 88 pending criminal court cases tied to the embattled West Valley Police Department's drug unit.

Late Wednesday, the department placed seven more officers from that unit on paid administrative leave.

Now what happens to those who were arrested by those officers and were subsequently convicted of drug-related crimes? Some in that very situation have been contacting their attorneys to find out if they are eligible to get their convictions tossed out.

"Previous clients have been reaching out to their attorneys," confirmed Kevin Hart, head of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which includes the Salt Lake Legal Defender's Office.

For now, Hart said his group is waiting to see how the ongoing investigations into the West Valley Police Department play out. At some point, he said, the association will probably make a decision whether individual attorneys will address the West Valley situation, or whether they should do it as a group.

But the idea of going back to court for cases that have already been adjudicated presents big problems for both defense attorneys and for the Utah Attorney General's Office, which would normally handle such appeals in court, Hart said.

"I think they could be overwhelmed with work if they get as many cases as I think will be addressed," he said.

District Attorney Sim Gill has dismissed the 88 cases because of credibility concerns and allegations of corruption within the West Valley Police Department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was disbanded in December.

Gill said Wednesday he still has many other cases to review and more dismissals are likely.

"My honest answer is I don't think we are done," he said.

When asked whether he believes drug-related convictions connected to the department could be overturned, Gill said he isn't at a point where he can think about that yet but noted that everything will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Gill said he didn't enjoy dismissing the 88 cases, but he has a "legal and ethical obligation" to uphold the Constitution.

"The important principle here is the integrity of the criminal justice system," he said. "We understand what the cost is and what the risk is (of dismissing cases), but that's what the Constitution requires."

Last week, West Valley City officials announced that an internal investigation had uncovered six disturbing "areas of potential problems" within the narcotics unit. The problems included undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, officers taking "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from drug-related crime scenes, and officers using GPS trackers without first securing a warrant. That investigation also uncovered the improper use of confidential informants and improper handling of evidence within the drug unit, as well as officers taking small amounts of cash and other items from seized vehicles.

Five days after that announcement, police administrators indicated Wednesday night that the officers previously assigned to the unit are now on a paid leave of absence. Those officers include two supervisors and five detectives: Lt. John Coyle, Sgt. Michael Johnson, and detectives Ricardo Franco, Sean McCarthy, Rafael Frausto, Chris Smith and Barbara Lund. Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon have been on paid administrative leave since November.

"The supervisors and detectives have been and continue to be completely cooperative with the investigation as the process moves forward," Deputy Chief Mike Powell said in a prepared statement. "This action is in accordance with our normal internal procedures."

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