As dozens of drug cases stemming from the Kingston’s largest-ever drug sweep make their way through the criminal justice system, law enforcement officials are taking steps to protect undercover cops and civilian informants who participated in the investigation from exposure and possible reprisals.
Operation Clean Sweep kicked off in August 2011 when Kingston cops joined up with a state police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT) and other police agencies for a major investigation targeting the city’s gangland infrastructure and the street narcotics trade which supports it.
During the operation, police recruited an unknown number of confidential informants. The CI’s, many of them intimately acquainted with Kingston’s drug underworld, made introductions between their undercover handlers and drug dealers and accompanied the undercover cops on many of the 207 separate narcotics transactions carried out over the course of Clean Sweep. Most, if not all, of the undercover buys were captured on police surveillance video. The video, along with testimony from undercover cops and informants, helped secure over 80 sealed grand jury indictments against Clean Sweep defendants and could prove decisive in cases which end up at trial.
But District Attorney Holley Carnright is worried that the video will serve another purpose: revealing the identity of undercover officers and informants to their targets. The law requires prosecutors to turn over evidence in criminal cases to defense attorneys. The so-called discovery process is intended to give the defense a look at the witnesses and evidence against their clients so that they can look for holes in the prosecution’s case or find other evidence and witnesses to contradict it.
But, Carnright said, some Clean Sweep defendants appear to be seeking out the video evidence primarily to identify informants and undercover cops.
“In a case like this we are always very conscious of the security of undercover officers and informants,” said Carnright. “And if an individual does not acknowledge their guilt and wants to see the video, the only reason to do that if to identify the people involved.”
Carnright said he was so concerned about exposing undercover operatives that his office sought a protective order which could have prevented defendants from viewing the video evidence during the discovery phase of the trial — attorneys for the accused would still have access to the video. County Court Judge Donald Williams denied the motion. In response, on May 9 Carnright sent a letter to defense attorneys on Clean Sweep cases advising them that prosecutors would not engage in plea negotiations in cases where defendants had insisted on viewing video evidence.
“We understand that it is your client’s right to view discoverable documents. However, please understand that it is our primary obligation to protect safety of those who have dedicated their lives to serving the law enforcement community,” the letter reads. “There is no incentive for this office to engage in plea bargaining after exposing an undercover officer.”
According to the letter, the decision to limit plea negotiations came after “a blatant attempt” by one defendant to expose the identity of an officer “for reasons that can only be nefarious.”