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Drug charge dismissed against Petersburg man over missing $4,000 seized by police

Richmond Times-Dispatch,
BYLINE: MARK BOWES Richmond Times-Dispatch,
Link to Article

2016-01-28_charge dismissed over missing 4000.00
Drug charge dismissed against Petersburg man over missing $4,000 seized by police
January 28, 2016 5:45 pm

Petersburg, VA

A marijuana distribution charge was dismissed this week against a Petersburg man on the recommendation of a city prosecutor, who indicated the case was tainted because it is tied to an ongoing investigation of missing cash from the Petersburg Bureau of Police’s property and evidence room.

Petersburg police seized about $4,000 from the defendant, Jamar L. Wesson, 30, after he was stopped with another man last June and charged with misdemeanor distribution of marijuana. Police found a small amount of marijuana in the car he was driving, along with drug scales and a pistol, authorities said.

The $4,000 is now missing.

The case against Wesson is at least the third time that city prosecutors have opted to seek the dismissal of charges against criminal defendants because monetary evidence has inexplicably disappeared.

Petersburg police have previously acknowledged after an inquiry by the Richmond Times-Dispatch that at least $13,356 in cash is missing from the department’s property room that can’t be accounted for and they are investigating the discrepancy. It could not be immediately determined whether the $4,000 missing in the Wesson case is part of that total, or is in addition to the amount that police reported missing in November.

Earlier this month, Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover publicly announced that she had asked Virginia State Police to investigate “any issues involving” the police department that had come to her attention through “conversations and media reports” of alleged police misconduct or corruption.

Conover has declined to say how many criminal cases her office has sought to have dismissed because of the police evidence room problems.

“I cannot comment because those cases are part of the cases turned over to the state police and the special prosecutor,” Conover said in an email Friday. “Because I knew I was going to hand them over, I did not make a comment earlier. I hope you understand my position in that I cannot compromise the investigation.”

Petersburg police would not discuss what happened to the $4,000 they seized from Wesson, or say whether they planned to refund that amount to him.

“The requested information is exempt from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, because of an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Virginia State Police,” said police spokeswoman Esther Hyatt. “Beyond that, the city has no further response.”

When Petersburg General District Judge Ray P. Lupold on Wednesday asked prosecutors to explain why they were seeking to have the charge dismissed against Wesson, Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney T. Leslie Lindsey said the reason was because “this is part of the incidents with the money,” according to a recording of the proceeding.

“What does that mean?” the judge replied.

“Umm ... the alleged missing money in the evidence room,” the prosecutor said.

The judge then questioned whether he should even be hearing the matter because three judges of the 11th Judicial Circuit, which includes Petersburg, had recused themselves in another, unrelated case. “What does the money have to do with this man?” Lupold added.

“This is what I was asked to request from the court, given the investigation,” Lindsey said.

After several more minutes of discussion during which the judge asked Wesson’s attorney for his view on the matter, and whether any money had been seized from his client, the judge said:

“It puts me in a very difficult situation, because three circuit court judges have contacted the judicial inquiry commission because of these problems. They’ve all recused themselves,” the judge said.

After indicating that he would continue the matter until another judge could be appointed to hear the case — and assuring the defendant the charges would be dismissed — the judge then decided, reluctantly and with a flash of annoyance, to dismiss the charge.

“This puts me in a tough position, Mr. Lindsey, I’ll tell you that,” Lupold said. “Your office knows that the circuit court judges have all recused themselves. ... Do not bring these cases back in this court and put me in this position or these policemen, or the defense lawyer.”

In addition to the issues stemming from the missing money from the evidence and property room, the Petersburg Public Defender’s Office last year raised serious allegations of police misconduct stemming from the search of a drug defendant’s home, citing statements by a fired city detective who claimed one of his former colleagues was “dirty.”

“Such information could not be verified by my office, and as such, there became a need for a formal investigation,” Conover said in a statement released Jan. 8.

The Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has been appointed to oversee the state police investigation and act as a special prosecutor if any wrongdoing is uncovered.

Petersburg police have not responded to a Jan. 8 Times-Dispatch Freedom of Information Act request seeking the results of the department’s audit and investigation of the evidence room, or the status of the probe if it’s still ongoing. The newspaper also requested the names of the defendants tied to each of the cases where the department has acknowledged that money has disappeared.

State law requires a response to FOIA requests within five working days, and the department has failed to do so. The law allows an additional seven days if the request cannot be filled within the five-day time frame, but notice must be given in writing, which the department also failed to do. The deadline was Jan. 15.

When asked Tuesday about the status of the request, Hyatt said she was sending the newspaper’s FOIA letter to the city attorney for a response. She said someone within the department had been reviewing the request earlier.

“I have not had email access since the storm and prior to that, the city was closed on two days for holidays,” Hyatt said in an email. “You will be getting a response.”

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