Court: Drop charges against Detroit cops who lied

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

False statements made by three Detroit gang squad officers during an internal police probe cannot be used against them in a criminal proceeding, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

As part of its 5-2 ruling, the court ordered felony obstruction of justice charges be dropped against Detroit police officers Nevin Hughes, Sean Harris and William Little in 36th District Court.

Hughes was allegedly caught on videotape on Nov. 19, 2009, beating Harrison Township man DeJuan Hodges-Lamar while on duty outside a Detroit gas station. The victim filed a complaint that led to an internal investigation by the Detroit Police Department’s Office of the Chief Investigator.

According to court records, Hughes made false statements during the investigation “under the threat of dismissal from his job” and denied the allegations.

After a video recording of the incident surfaced, Hughes was charged in the 36th District Court with felony misconduct in office, misdemeanor assault and battery, and obstruction of justice.

The two other police officers, Harris and Little, who had been standing nearby during the incident, also made false statements under “the threat of dismissal from their jobs,” denying the allegations against Hughes during the internal investigation, were also charged in the 36th District Court with obstruction of justice.

36th District Court Judge Katherine L. Hansen ruled that defendants’ statements during the investigation could not be used against them, citing the Disclosures by Law Enforcement Officers Act, which says an involuntary statement made by a law enforcement officer may not be used against them in a criminal proceeding,

Prosecutors appealed and Wayne Circuit Court Bruce U. Morrow upheld the lower court’s dismissal.

But the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, remanding the cases to the district court for reinstatement. The appeals court said neither the Fifth Amendment nor the act barred the use of defendants’ false statements in the criminal proceedings.

Hughes, meanwhile, has been sued eight times and has cost taxpayers more than $677,000, according to court records. Hughes had been sued over a beating during the Downtown Hoedown and accused of illegal searches and seizures, falsifying search warrants and assaulting men at gas stations.

In the Michigan Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Brian K. Zahra, the court said under the act, any information provided by a law enforcement officer, if compelled under threat of any employment sanction by the officer’s employer, cannot be used against him or her in criminal proceedings.

“The act does not distinguish between true and false statements. Therefore, even if false, the officer’s statements cannot be used against the officer in a subsequent prosecution,” Zahra said.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen Markman and David Viviano disagreed the act precludes the use of false statements by a law enforcement officer in a prosecution for obstruction of justice.

“False statements do not constitute ‘information’ and therefore are not protected by the DLEOA. Lies do not constitute ‘information’ as that term is commonly defined and understood. ‘Information’ is commonly defined as knowledge. Lies do not impart knowledge. Indeed, one becomes increasingly less informed as a result of lies,” Markman wrote.

Hughes’ attorney, John Goldpaugh, said the ruling was wonderful news and the right decision.

Hughes still faces trial on the misdemeanor charge of assault and battery charges and the felony charge of misconduct in office, Goldpaugh said.

Goldpaugh said he could not discuss why Hughes made false statements during the internal investigation, but said none of those statements were made for a criminal investigation.

“Their statements were made for internal affairs only,” Goldpaugh said.

The three officers’ employment status were not immediately available Wednesday.