TAMPA — The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said it will seek to overturn the criminal convictions of 17 people that hung on the testimony of three Tampa police officers who were fired last month after an investigation found that they repeatedly violated department policy.
As concerns rose over the credibility of Officers Mark Landry, John Laratta and Algenis Maceo, the office examined all cases involving each of the three dating back to January 2018, State Attorney Andrew Warren said at a news conference Wednesday.
The conviction review unit identified 17 cases, against 17 defendants, in which the officers were essential witnesses — and there was no evidence to confirm their testimony.
"Those convictions cannot stand," Warren said.
The office said it will notify the attorneys of all 17 defendants.
The reversals are the first major finding from the state attorney's conviction review unit, which was created by Warren in 2018. The unit reviews closed cases with the goal of rooting out wrongful convictions.
In May, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan announced that he had fired the three officers — Laratta, Landry and Maceo — after a seven-month investigation revealed what the chief described as a pattern of bad behavior. He said the officers had failed to document detentions and searches, and failed to properly dispose of seized drugs.
The investigation started in September 2018 after a citizen complained that Laratta and Landry had threatened him with violence while they were investigating a suspicious vehicle. The officers denied it. Laratta was equipped with one of the department's 60 body-worn cameras. But when investigators pulled the footage, they found he shut off the device moments before the encounter.
None of the officers were accused of committing a crime. But the investigation cast a shadow on their credibility, Dugan said, and that made it problematic for those officers to testify in court. As a result, at least five ongoing prosecutions were quickly dropped.
Then came the examination by the conviction review unit. The team is comprised of a prosecutor, an investigator and a staff assistant. They reviewed 225 cases involving the officers going back months before their conduct came under suspicion.
They presented the 17 cases to an independent review panel, which includes retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, and retired appellate judges Chris Altenbernd and E. J. Salcines.
The panel then made recommendations to Warren. Although they only examined cases dating to 2018, Warren encouraged anyone who believes these officers played a role in a wrongful conviction to petition the review unit to look into those cases.
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The 17 defendants had all decided against going to trial. They all pleaded guilty.
Although the defendants admitted guilt, Warren spoke of the importance of ensuring that the accused are "legally guilty" as well as "factually guilty."
"We cannot in good faith uphold convictions based exclusively on the words of those officers," Warren said. "As a result, there is simply no credible evidence to sustain the convictions in those cases."
Tampa's police chief joined Hillsborough's top prosecutor for the announcement.
"It's obviously very awkward and embarrassing for me to be here today," Dugan said. "The only thing I can do to these officers is fire them. ... I apologize to the members of the court who have, quite frankly, now wasted their time prosecuting these cases."
Most of the convictions were for drug offenses, the majority involving marijuana. In one case, the defendant was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon. Some were charged with felonies, but later pleaded guilty to lesser misdemeanor offenses. All but three were represented in court by the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office. None of the 17 is currently incarcerated.
A typical case was that of Rashard White. An arrest report, written by Landry, states that on March 1, 2018, White was driving a Nissan Maxima in the area of E 22nd Avenue and Cord Street. The officer wrote that he stopped the car after seeing that one of its headlights was out. As he spoke with White, Landry said he smelled marijuana. A subsequent search of the car turned up a backpack that held five small bags of marijuana and a digital scale, the officer wrote. White later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years probation.
Chip Purcell, an attorney representing the three officers, said the conviction review unit did not question them about any of the cases. He noted that Landry and Laratta were among the department's top officers making drug and gun arrests. Landry was named "Officer of the Month" in April 2018. The attorney characterized the policies they violated as minor.
"The only way the chief can uphold the firings is to get the State Attorney's Office to say these guys are not credible and they can't testify," Purcell said. "They picked a handful of cheesy little crimes to set aside the convictions. ... This is greasy Tampa politics."
All three officers are contesting their terminations through the Tampa Police Benevolent Association. The union president, Darla Portman, said Wednesday that the three are still going through the grievance process. The next step would be arbitration.
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TimesDan.