Officials are seeking to reverse drug-related charges and convictions of 27 people after the Westchester District Attorney's Office found a number of inconsistencies and errors involved in their prosecution that were also related to a criminal investigation into a police department in the county.
A total of 27 individuals were either charged or convicted for allegedly selling drugs to a Westchester County Police/Department of Public Safety undercover officer during a 2017 narcotics operation conducted by the Mount Vernon Police Department, according to Westchester County District Attorney Miriam Rocah.
However, a pattern of "inconsistencies, errors, and disclosure issues" uncovered by the DA Office's Conviction Review Unit (CRU) after "secret recordings" containing allegations of wrongdoing made by a former MVPD officer were found resulted in Roach seeking to vacate the convictions and charges, she announced on Wednesday, May 10.
Of the 32 people originally charged in the 2017 operation, five had their cases dismissed before the CRU's review. Three of these dismissals were because of significant issues with evidence, and two were because of the individuals completing diversion programs.
Of the remaining 27 people charged:
- 26 cases were resolved by pleas;
- 11 cases involved felony charges and will be brought before Westchester County Court;
- 16 involved misdemeanor charges and will be handled in Mount Vernon City Court.
Among the cases stemming from the 2017 operation, 16 people served sentences of from up to one year in jail or up to one-and-a-half to four years in state prison. Another 10 received sentences such as conditional discharges or probation, or had their cases covered by another case.
One case is still open, and none of the individuals are currently incarcerated, Rocah said, adding that their defense counsel has been notified of the CRU's findings.
"The Conviction Review Unit’s review uncovered inconsistencies, reliability concerns, and significant disclosure issues that leave me unable to stand by the prosecutions connected to the Mount Vernon Police Department’s 2017 undercover narcotics operation," Rocah said of the matter.
She also added, "I will seek to vacate these convictions and dismiss the charges. Though rare, wrongful convictions erode community trust and the public’s faith in the criminal justice system.”
Additionally, Rocah also announced the conclusion of a criminal investigation into the Mount Vernon Police Department's Narcotics Division that had also been prompted by the discovery of the "secret recordings" of the former MVPD officer.
This criminal investigation found conduct and practices that led Rocah to call on the Department of Justice to conduct a civil rights “pattern or practice” investigation into the Narcotics Divison, which it initiated in 2021.
However, because the secret recordings that led to the investigation are not admissible in court to prove the crimes discussed on them, they could not alone support criminal charges, according to Rocah.
Ultimately, charges could not be brought against the Narcotics Divison because of legally insufficient evidence to overcome the high burden of proof in criminal cases beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rocah also said that certain Narcotics Division officers and civilians who would serve as key witnesses in the case would not cooperate with the investigation despite the support and assistance from MVPD leadership.
"I understand that people may be confused and possibly even disappointed by the lack of criminal charges after hearing the secretly-recorded conversations among certain Mount Vernon police officers," Rocah said, also adding, "We could not rely on the allegations contained on the recordings as evidence in a court of law."
She also continued, "Additionally, our criminal investigation was hampered by significant hurdles, such as recantations by an officer who was heard on the recordings alleging corruption, and lack of cooperation by some law enforcement and key witnesses."
Despite this, Rocah said she is "proud of the subsequent actions we have taken to help restore even a measure of public faith in our justice system.”
In a statement released on Wednesday, Mount Vernon officials responded to Rocah's decision to seek to vacate the convictions, as well as the criminal investigation into the Narcotics Division.
"As DA Rocah stated, both the Mt. Vernon Police Department and the DA’s office made every attempt to pursue charges but lacked the cooperation of complainants and some MVPD officers in making these cases," city officials said.
Officials also added that since the 2017 operation, an officer who "violated the duty to serve this city" has been fired, and another assigned to desk duty. Additionally, in early 2020, the narcotics unit was disbanded and a violent crime unit was instead formed to respond to an increase in homicides.
The city also hired a special prosecutor in 2021 to investigate officers accused of misconduct and has actively pursued charges against these officers who "betrayed the public's trust," officials said.
"The city takes these matters very seriously, and we look forward to assisting any law enforcement agency that is actively rooting out corruption," officials continued in the statement.
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