Mistrial in Oakland drug case leads to scrutiny
Pontiac — The state agency that oversees Michigan’s courts plans to investigate how local officials handle search warrants after paperwork came up missing in the case of an accused Oakland County drug dealer.
Christopher Khalil Dukes, 34, of Rochester Hills, was granted a mistrial this spring on a charge of possession with intent to deliver 450-1,000 grams of heroin after prosecutors, police and court officials were unable to produce a warrant authorizing the placement of a mobile tracking device on his car.
Prior to trial, investigators had not disclosed the existence of the device, as required by law.
Information gained from the tracker was used to obtain a warrant in August 2015 authorizing police to search Dukes’ apartment, where they found a kilogram of heroin with a street value of up to $300,000, cash and guns.
Authorities have said the warrant authorizing the tracker was misplaced, but Dukes’ attorney has questioned whether the document ever existed in the first place.
In a recent hearing, 50th District Judge Ronda Fowlkes Gross, who reportedly approved the warrant, testified her court does not keep records or copies of search warrants signed by judges — nor is that required by law.
Asked about the judge’s statement, John Nevin, a spokesman for the Michigan State Court Administrative Office, said that according to case file management standards, the court should keep search warrants stored in an annual group file by date of issuance.
Nevin said the office’s regional administrator “will be looking into the issue.”
Asked whether the office’s inquiry would be focused on Oakland County, Nevin replied, “Certainly start in Oakland and then investigating if it’s a problem elsewhere.”
The controversy over the missing search warrant led the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office to change how it stores search warrants and supporting documents.
Undersheriff Michael McCabe said following the Dukes mistrial, the department began scanning search warrants and affidavits into a digital file that’s included with every case file.
“We always had and continue to have a hard copy file,” McCabe said. “We just felt it was a good practice to have a digital file in the event a record could not be found for any reason.”
In Dukes’ case, attorney James W. Amberg obtained a mistrial on the first day of trial after cross examination of a detective revealed the GPS tracking device — a legal tool used by law enforcement officers — had been secretly placed on Dukes’ 2015 Cadillac.
In subsequent efforts, Amberg determined no one had a copy of the search warrant authorizing placement of the GPS device.
After weeks of searching at five possible locations, Detective Charles Janczarek, the lead investigator, found a signed affidavit for the tracker warrant in a milk crate in his basement.
Amberg contends there is no evidence that Janczarek and the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team ever properly obtained the initial warrant.
He said that means the second warrant for the apartment — which relied partly on the tracking device information as probable cause to search the residence — was deficient and any evidence obtained through it should not be permitted at trial.
NET officers said Dukes’ activities — monitored for 30 days through the tracker — supported the request for a second warrant to search his apartment, where the drugs were found.
Investigators also had focused on Dukes based on an unnamed “reliable confidential informant,” who told officers Dukes was distributing cocaine throughout Oakland County.
Dukes had been linked with six active DEA investigations, according to Janczarek’s warrant affidavit, and had been monitored in “short term traffic/meeting indicative of narcotics transactions” over 10 times in Oakland and Wayne counties in a 30-day period.
Amberg slammed authorities’ handling of the case in a legal brief submitted to Judge Rae Lee Chabot of Oakland County Circuit Court.
“This case is extremely disturbing,” Amberg wrote to Chabot after a two-day hearing in June. “The Oakland County Narcotics Unit is allowed by the Prosecutor’s Office and judges of Oakland County to operate completely in secret, giving those individuals who are subject to their police-state tactics no ability to challenge their investigations.”
Chabot heard testimony from seven witnesses, including assistant county prosecutor Beth Hand, who supervises drug unit cases, and Gross.
The assistant prosecutor in the Dukes case, Shannon O’Brien, declined to comment to The News.
But in legal motions filed July 25, O’Brien said a “preponderance of the evidence at the hearing supports a finding that the GPS tracker search warrant existed, but is lost. There is no evidence of any perpetration of fraud in the production of the GPS tracker affidavit; Defendant’s accusations in that regard are wholly without merit.”
Chabot will consider the testimony, legal briefs and possibly additional verbal arguments before the case moves forward but the testimony to date offers some insight on how investigations and search warrants are handled. Among them:
■Janczarek said he remembered filing the search warrants for the tracker and the apartment search in court and giving copies of both to Hand.
■Janczarek said he recalled storing information, including his original draft for the tracking device warrant, on a computer “memory stick,” which also has disappeared.
■Gross testified she recalled conversations with Janczarek about the tracker warrant.
■Janczarek’s supervisor, Detective Sgt. Douglas Stewart, testified officers purposely do not write reports or keep notes of their ongoing investigations.
■Hand, who made the charging decision in the case, testified no GPS tracker search warrant or affidavit was submitted to her.
In filings to Chabot, Amberg said that in his dealings with the FBI, DEA and Homeland Security in narcotics cases, the federal agencies all kept “detailed reports for every single thing they do in furthering of investigations.”
“If this had happened in federal court, the ax would come down hard,” Amberg told Chabot when arguing for a mistrial in March.
Amberg characterized Gross’ testimony in June as “either untruthful” or her knowledge of warrant processing “astonishingly poor.”
He noted that Janczarek had copies of a warrant seeking suppression of the tracking device warrant. That, Amberg said, raised a question: If records aren’t kept, why would there be a need to seek to have them suppressed?
This is not the first time allegations have been raised regarding information placed on a search warrant by an NET officer. In 2013 Sgt. Marc Ferguson was fired when it was revealed he had lied on affidavits and committed perjury in 2011 to obtain a search warrant on a package containing 78 pounds of marijuana he had already opened at a Pontiac shipping company.
The prosecutor’s office subsequently dismissed 17 cases involving Ferguson as a chief witness.