It was a Perry Mason moment.
A misdemeanor marijuana charge was dismissed during the trial because prosecutors failed to turn over a video recording taken from the dashboard camera of a Highland police car documenting the traffic stop, search and arrest of Patrick M. Luchtefeld.
Prosecutors didn’t turn it over to Luchtefeld’s defense lawyers because they didn’t know it existed.
But Luchtefeld did.
It was during a short trial in Madison County last week when police testified about pulling over a 1992 blue Honda for a having a loud muffler and no rear registration light. Luchtefeld, 32, of Trenton, was a passenger. He was with two friends heading from Pierron into Highland to buy beer. Police Officer Charles Allen said he found a baggie of marijuana on the floor, near the passenger seat. And there was a camera rolling on Allen’s squad car’s dashboard camera through it all.
Those video recordings were not given to Luchtefeld’s lawyer, Thomas Maag, before the trial, as required by law. When Allen testified they didn’t exist, Luchtefeld leaned over to Maag at the defense table and told him he had them. The day after he was ticketed, Luchtefeld asked for a copy of the video, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Luchtefeld got four discs six days later.
“The circumstance in this case is very disturbing, because while there was testimony that there may have been a malfunction of the dash-cam, the very existence of a video appears to have been kept from the State’s Attorney’s Office,” said Associate Judge David Grounds. “For what reason? Oversight? I don’t know. Because the State’s Attorney’s Office had no knowledge of such video, it was not produced in discovery, as requested by (defense counsel). It’s an extraordinary step where an individual makes a Freedom of Information request and obtains something that’s very existence is unknown to the prosecuting authority.”
“I respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision,” Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said.
Gibbons said Luchtefeld and the defense weren’t denied access to any evidence.
“He did have the videos,” Gibbons said. “He had more of the evidence than we did.”
Gibbons called it a “mix-up,” but said the case spurred discussions between his office and Highland Police Chief Terry Bell about retention of video recordings.
Bell could not be reached for comment.
Southern Illinois University law professor Bill Schroeder said with dash-cams, body-cams and interrogation videos, police departments need to have a rational policy on storing the footage.
“There’s all this material. Where would you store it all? The answer seems to be there needs to be a reasonable approach to retention,” Schroeder said.
The case is unusual in that misdemeanors rarely go to trial because the punishment is usually a fine, not jail time — although a sentence of up to a year in jail can, in fact, be imposed. Keeping all that video from misdemeanor and even traffic cases could pose a problem for prosecutors and police. It would mean volumes of video would need to be catalogued and stored, Schroeder said, in case of a trial.
The video in Luchtefeld’s case showed Allen stopping the car, giving the driver a field-sobriety test and breathalyzer test, which he passed, then searching the car, then arresting Luchtefeld.
Luchtefeld said he wanted a trial to prove his innocence. He paid Maag $1,500 to fight the charge. He also requested and received the videos under Illinois’ Freedom of Information law.
“That makes for an unusual set of facts,” Schroeder said.
Luchtefeld said he felt the police targeted him because of his piercings, tattoos and two previous felony convictions.
“I’ve never seen anything so crooked in my life as what these cops did,” Luchtefeld said. “They are out of control. They think they can do whatever they want.”
When he was accused in the other cases, he pleaded guilty, he said, and, in one case, went to prison.
“If I did something, I will stand up and plead guilty, but I did not do this,” Luchtefeld said.
Luchtefeld said he would like to sue the city, but he’s already out $1,500 in legal fees.
“They violated my rights,” he said.
Schroeder said he doubts the failure to turn over the video was intentional, which is the standard of a Constitutional violation, but said the decision to dismiss the case is a discretion call for the judge.
“I understand both sides of the argument,” Schroeder said. “The judge could have found the violation was inadvertent and it could have gone the other way. I think he wanted to send a message to police and prosecutors in this case that they just do it this way.”