A Bangor Daily News review of state and federal court records found  nine recent cases that were dropped by prosecutors after judges called out Maine State Police troopers for violating a person's rights. Credit: Illustration by Sawyer Loftus

This story was reported over the course of four months by Callie Ferguson, who reviewed court records in more than 30 state police cases to understand its approach to drug enforcement, specifically during traffic stops. It’s based on hundreds of documents from state and federal court, visits to five Maine courthouses in four counties, interviews with current and former prosecutors, judges, police chiefs, lawyers and legal and policing experts.

When the Maine State Police awarded its Trooper of the Year citation last year to an officer accused of racially profiling drivers on the Maine Turnpike, it threw a spotlight on the policing style used by a little-known unit tasked with disrupting the drug trade. Two high-profile criminal cases involving Black defendants were dismissed over questions about Trooper John Darcy’s policing and credibility.

But Darcy, who has since been promoted to corporal, is not the only trooper to face tough questions about his conduct and credibility, a Bangor Daily News review of state and federal court records found. He’s not even the only Trooper of the Year to have done so.

There have been at least nine other cases dropped by prosecutors since 2018 after a judge dismissed evidence that troopers obtained by violating a person’s rights, documents show. Most, but not all, involved members of Darcy’s Proactive Criminal Enforcement, or PACE, team, which specializes in turning traffic stops into larger criminal investigations.

One trooper illegally searched between a man’s buttocks on the side of the road. Another followed two Black men from a Bangor convenience store until he found a reason to pull them over. A third officer — and the unit’s supervisor — has illegally detained and interrogated drivers on the highway shoulder.

Police make honest mistakes, so bungled prosecutions are not always a sign of officer misconduct. But the BDN review found that judges have called out troopers for interrogating suspects without reading them their rights and tossed evidence after video contradicted an officer’s testimony. In one case, a group of officers illegally searched someone’s property, then in court told conflicting and unlikely versions of what happened.

The new reporting is a window into the methods of a secretive police force as it strains to put a dent in the state’s deepening  drug crisis, sometimes using aggressive tactics that can run afoul of civil liberties and that raise questions about officers’ credibility and competence.

“To me, the issue is not, ‘Did the cops make some stops that were not justified under the Fourth Amendment?’” said Bruce Green, a former federal prosecutor and director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University in New York.

“The concerning part is if the police are demonstrably lying or probably lying because the video contradicts their testimony. Could it be they’re misremembering? Yes. But if they’re making things up, that’s concerning, even if it’s one case,” Green said.

Questions about an officer’s truthfulness aside, there is the matter of competency. When a judge excludes evidence because the cop violated someone’s rights to collect it — a serious blow to prosecutors in a legal landscape that otherwise gives police broad powers to investigate suspicious activity — the move is supposed to deter them from repeating that mistake.

“Part of the job of being a supervisor is to train and oversee subordinate officers so they comply with law, not only because they are worrying about cases getting thrown out, because it’s the right thing to do,” Green said.

Because the state police doesn’t track dismissals of drug cases, it is unclear how many are due to credibility issues and constitutional rights violations, or whether there is a pattern of such conduct on the PACE team, which at its peak included just under 20 members, out of a larger force of roughly 300 officers.

But at least one senior Maine law enforcement official privately raised concerns about the unit’s oversight with the state police’s leadership because he feared its approach was jeopardizing investigations.

On multiple occasions in 2019 and 2020, Darrell Crandall, the former northern commander of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the primary state agency responsible for intercepting illegal drugs, contacted Brian Scott, the state police major in charge of operations, to register concerns based on what he saw in the field, he told the BDN.

But the issues continued, said Crandall, who retired in early 2021 after a 36-year career in Maine law enforcement, including more than two decades as a leader at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and a stint as Aroostook County sheriff.

“I am not being critical of the road troopers themselves. This is a leadership problem,” Crandall said. “Specialized, proactive units like PACE require greater internal scrutiny, to include clear expectations and mission parameters, dynamic standard procedures, intensive ongoing training, close and constant oversight, direct collaboration with state prosecutors, regular audits and consistent accountability.”

He continued, “For the administration of an agency to chart the course of a unit like this based on guidance they get from adverse court rulings would be an unacceptable failure to protect good officers within their command and a disservice to the public.”

In a statement, Col. John Cote, chief of the Maine State Police, did not respond to specific questions, but said the agency works closely with prosecutors to target drug traffickers while safeguarding people’s rights, and welcomes the courts as a check on those practices.

“We learn as much from cases which result in successful prosecution as those cases which may not pass the test of a pre-trial hearing,” Cote said, adding that the suppression of evidence or a dismissal is not inherently a sign of misconduct.

“The lack of discipline records related to the cases cited should speak for itself,” he said.

read more from maine focus

Evidence of dishonesty, bias and, in some situations, incompetence are examples of so-called Giglio material, named after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that requires prosecutors to provide defendants with any information that could impeach the credibility of an officer who investigated them.

It’s unclear how Maine prosecutors have responded to recent state police cases. The U.S. attorney’s office, the Office of the Maine Attorney General and Maine State Police declined to comment on specific cases or officers.

Dismissals aren’t the only cases that have prompted scrutiny of the state police’s practices. Even when judges find officers acted legally, lawyers and advocates have criticized the agency, especially the PACE unit, for employing aggressive techniques that experts say are commonly associated with racial profiling.

Lawyers have suspected or accused the PACE team of targeting drivers based on their race in at least 14 cases since 2018, according to a BDN review of court records. Troopers followed their clients leaving the bus station in taxis, called for drug-sniffing dogs before pulling them over, or used traffic rules that most drivers break, such as traveling in the middle lane, as a reason to stop and question them, documents show.

Darcy’s comments to internal investigators that he pulls people over based on “gut instinct” underscored concerns about that policing style.

“We never see the times [the police] are wrong because they let those people go,” said defense lawyer Will Ashe. “The state police are regularly engaged in pushing the boundaries of what they can do. Maybe it gets an extra ‘X’ amount of arrests, but is it worth the cost?”

Meanwhile, the PACE team’s activities have dramatically wound down in recent years, data show. The number of drug cases it investigated plummeted between 2019 and 2021, from 157 to 12. A spokesperson attributed it to the pandemic and fewer troopers assigned to the team.

‘Pushing the envelope’

Police are allowed to investigate suspicious activity if they can justify it in court, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. Without a reasonable basis, they might violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. PACE officers’ actions often fall into this subjective area of the law, where their judgment guides a case.

In October 2019, Sgt. Thomas Pappas, a co-leader of the PACE team, stopped a black Kia Soul in the middle of the night for following a truck on the highway too closely. A judge later found that it should have taken the trooper eight minutes to investigate the minor traffic violation. But Pappas, suspecting drug activity, held the car for another 38 minutes until a drug-sniffing dog arrived.

According to court documents, Pappas’ hunch proved correct: He found crack cocaine on one of the passengers, Antron Owens, and charged him with felony trafficking. But his reasons for prolonging the traffic stop didn’t add up for the judge. More troubling, Pappas’ testimony wasn’t entirely accurate.

Federal District Court Judge Jon Levy disagreed with several of Pappas’ observations that the vehicle and its passengers seemed suspicious enough to detain, including that the driver looked disheveled and seemed nervous, suggesting she might use drugs. That description “is largely at odds with the video evidence,” Levy concluded.

Pappas also testified that he recognized Owens from a previous traffic stop, just four months earlier in June, where he and three other troopers found a large sum of cash in his car, which they suspected was from the sale of illegal drugs. A PACE team member had stopped Owens’ car, in which he was a passenger, for speeding, and throughout the hour-long traffic stop, taunted him and the driver about how they “got away with it this time,” the video shows.

But Pappas’ version of the June 2019 traffic stop contained a major inaccuracy: He said troopers found the cash after a dog signaled there were drugs in the vehicle, giving them a legal basis to conduct a search.

But there never was a dog at the scene, video shows. Rather, a group of troopers began looking through the car after the lead officer accused the men of smoking marijuana and made the driver undergo a sobriety test, which he passed. Owens later claimed the officers racially profiled him when they pulled the car over.

Prosecutors said Pappas misremembered the search, an explanation Levy accepted. But in court filings, Owens argued that Pappas shouldn’t be trusted because he had a history of violating defendants’ rights.

In at least four of Pappas’ cases since 2014, judges have tossed evidence based on constitutional violations, Owens’ attorney noted. In April 2019, shortly before the trooper first encountered Owens in June, Kennebec County Judge Eric Walker dismissed a drug case because Pappas questioned the defendant in such a bullying manner on the side of the highway that any reasonable person would have believed she was in police custody, he said. Pappas should have read her a Miranda warning, Walker said, adding that the officer’s conduct was “concerning.”

Two months later, Pappas won the State Police Leadership Award for his supervision of the PACE team, according to a June 2019 press release. Pappas was also the agency’s Trooper of the Year in 2010 and serves as union president of the Maine State Troopers Association.

Levy did not take up the larger question about Pappas’ credibility in the Owens decision, but he made the same decision to bar prosecutors from using the drugs Pappas seized as evidence after ruling the officer had violated Owens’ Fourth Amendment rights. The charges against Owens were dropped.

Darcy is another officer whose conduct in the field has jeopardized multiple recent cases. In addition to the two that made headlines, the BDN identified another two dropped cases since 2018 in which defendants accused him and PACE Trooper Jodell Wilkinson of violating their rights.

“My opinion is that the state police are pushing the envelope because they’re very focused on trying to stop the flow of drugs,” said Bill Baghdoyan, a former prosecutor who now practices criminal defense, “which, quite frankly, is probably an impossible task.”

Judges tossed evidence in two of Baghdoyan’s recent cases because the troopers illegally detained his clients after traffic stops. He has a third case in which similar allegations are likely to result in reduced charges for his client, he said.

“I was a prosecutor for 25 years. I’m not anti-police. What I am is anti-violation of basic constitutional rights,” he said, noting he’s most concerned for the cases where police use those tactics and still find no evidence of crimes. “It’s not very hard for them to do it right. And as a prosecutor, when they did it wrong and screwed up my case, it always really annoyed me.”

Judges have also questioned the police narratives in cases handled by other troopers on the PACE team or who have worked alongside the unit.

For instance, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen found last year that troopers used a bail check as a flimsy excuse to storm a York County property. She also questioned the testimony of the lead investigator, then-Cpl. Adam Schmidt, a PACE team member and the agency’s 2018 Trooper of the Year. Schmidt testified that he found drugs on the defendant after spotting them in plain sight inside a glasses case at the bottom of a backpack, but the evidence didn’t back that up.

Two witnesses, including another trooper, testified that Schmidt found them after searching the backpack, according to the ruling. (The officers were not wearing body cameras.) The next week, the state police announced that Schmidt had been promoted from corporal to sergeant of Troop A, which patrols York County.

In another case, PACE member Dana Austin, now a detective, in 2019 said he found a condom full of drugs taped between Jose Miranda’s buttocks while patting him down for weapons on the side of the road in Dedham. But U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker didn’t buy that story after watching the dashcam video.

“Although Austin testified he was patting Miranda down ‘for weapons,’ in fact he was exploring the space between Miranda’s buttocks specifically because he suspected he would find contraband drugs in that location,” the judge wrote in a January 2020 decision.

And in another decision from December 2019, Penobscot County Superior Court Justice Ann Murray questioned Trooper Jeremy Caron’s credibility after video on multiple occasions contradicted his version of a pretextual traffic stop in downtown Bangor.

“Dishonesty, lying, testilying” — where an officer testifies to a version of events that is more likely to comply with the law — “distorting the truth, collaborating with others to form a common narrative, all of that really fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the police,” said Michael Scott, a former police chief and criminal justice professor at Arizona State University.

“If it turns out that there are conflicting stories among different people who were there as to the sequence of things, some of that may be understandable, and maybe the remedy might be, ‘Let’s have our body-worn cameras on,’” he said.

In a well-functioning system, police chiefs and prosecutors should investigate why cases get dismissed, especially when they involve police credibility, he said. The officer may need more training on what the Constitution allows, but lying should be grounds for termination.

Cote said in his statement that the state police reviews all of its cases closely, regardless of the outcome, “in our efforts to continually improve our craft.”

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.