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."
The investigation into the drug unit began after the fatal officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard when officers found evidence from a prior crime scene in the trunk of Cowley's car. He and Salmon shot Willard during an undercover drug operation. Former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said that was the launching board to disband the entire unit and conduct an internal investigation.
In addition to the 88 state cases, eight federal cases tied to the department have also been dismissed.
Defense attorney Susanne Gustin, who has a private practice, said she, too, has been contacted by past clients and is in the process of taking a serious look at at least two cases.
Both Gustin and Hart agree the process of going back and reviewing old cases will be difficult. And if there is a problem with a particular case, Gustin said it may not be evident simply from a police report. It will take some leg work by attorneys to determine if there are potential issues.
"It's not an easy process. It will be very time-consuming," she said.
She cautioned that just because someone was arrested by West Valley police and convicted, that doesn't automatically mean a case is eligible to be overturned.
"They're not going to dismiss every single (West Valley) case. If a defense attorney approaches a prosecutor and says, 'I have real concerns with this case and this is why. It fits the profile of the other problem cases and it involves this officer or this kind of MO,' then I think they'll look at it," she said. "But no, I don't think they're going to do a wholesale dismissal of every single West Valley narcotics case."
For those wrongly convicted, Gustin said the collateral damage includes lost jobs and seized property that was eventually forfeited.
Likewise, Hart said, not every person ever arrested by West Valley police should be contacting their lawyer. But if a person has been arrested by a West Valley officer on a drug charge and recently convicted, "Then I would probably ask questions and contact my attorney."
But Hart said he has no idea how far the problematic cases go back or how many years the district attorney's is investigating.
Another problem for the Salt Lake Legal Defender's Office is that by law, its attorneys do not have to accept a client's case once it is past the trial phase and initial appeal.8 comments on this story
"If they're private practice attorneys, they would probably want to be paid for (reopening a case in court). There will be plenty of attorneys who will do it out of the goodness of their hearts pro bono," Hart said. "If they were given a public defender, however, I don't think the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association has the resources to do that."
Despite the extra work it may create, Hart had praise Wednesday for what Gill is doing.
"This is an extremely unusual situation and I applaud the district attorney for serving justice. He's doing what is right and that's the role of a prosecutor — to do what's right and not to win cases," he said.