An Oregon lawyer fights to open police internal affairs records
Willamette Week |
April 6th, 2011 JAMES PITKIN
When police raided William Traverso’s house last fall, it wasn’t the first time cops had come knocking.
Traverso was caught up in a 2008 FBI sting in which he admitted selling steroids to a Canby cop. Officer Jason Deason and Chief Greg Kroeplin were forced to resign in a widely reported scandal. Traverso pleaded guilty to dealing a controlled substance and was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
But now Traverso is at the center of a newer case that could have much broader impact in courtrooms across Oregon.
On Oct. 1, 2010, Canby Police Officer James Murphy led another raid on Traverso’s home that uncovered a small amount of meth. Traverso now is fighting a possession rap in Clackamas County Circuit Court. A trial is set for May 10.
His attorney, John Henry Hingson III, wants to use the case to ensure defense lawyers statewide greater access to secret police files. He says Oregon law enforcement is decades behind requirements for openness handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s like there’s something in the water in Oregon that prosecutors and judges just don’t get it,” Hingson says.
Hingson obtained a 2009 report written by private detectives the City of Canby had hired to investigate the steroid scandal. Among their findings: Murphy had been demoted from detective to officer for alleged dishonesty.
That information could damage Murphy’s credibility and affect the outcome of Traverso’s case. Quoting a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings starting in 1963, Hingson says prosecutors have “a duty to learn” such information and hand it over to the defense.
But defense lawyers normally rely on prosecutors to reveal information about cops. And Hingson says the only way for that to happen is for prosecutors to review their internal affairs records.
That should be the “law of the land,” says Jack King, spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C. But the standard is upheld unevenly, he says—despite the U.S. Constitution trumping local law.
“It ought to be a matter of routine to examine an officer’s service record,” King says. “Are defense attorneys fighting hard enough? That’s a good question.”
Jim McIntyre, a former Multnomah County prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer, says an Oregon law shielding personnel records makes police agencies tight-fisted and prosecutors hesitant to ask. As a prosecutor, he says, police repeatedly denied him access.
“[Prosecutors] rarely seek it out and turn it over [to defense lawyers], because it is so tightly held by the agencies pursuant to the law that protects those records,” McIntyre says. “The defense does file motions to disclose those records, and frequently the judges will turn them down.”
Spokesmen for the district attorneys in Multnomah and Clackamas counties say they comply with the law and that Hingson’s interpretation appears overly broad. Multnomah County Chief District Attorney Norm Frink points out his office has prevailed against Hingson on the issue.
“Mr. Hinson, a zealous and skilled advocate, has attempted many times to convince the Oregon judiciary [on this issue],” Frink writes in an email. “To my knowledge he has been generally, if not always, unsuccessful.”
Hingson counters with a 1996 article in The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin titled “Disclosing Officer Misconduct: A Constitutional Duty.” And he points to two cases in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned decisions by Oregon judges.
“The 9th Circuit is saying, ‘Oregon, you are Forrest Gump,’” Hingson quips.
Hingson asked a judge to authorize a subpoena of Murphy’s personnel records.
Pulling language from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hingson is also demanding to know what “procedures and regulations” prosecutors have in place to become aware of damaging information about cops. He says he’s certain there are no such procedures in Oregon.
“It’s because of ignorance of the law,” Hingson says. “I fault the defense attorneys as much as the DAs and the courts.”