Just months ago United State’s Attorney’s Office praised the work of law enforcement in ending a complex Washington D.C. heroin and cocaine trafficking ring. The investigation and subsequent prosecution led to 14 felony convictions, with most of the defendants ending up with prison sentences. But as of this week, only one defendant remains jailed, and the other 13 have been released from prison. Last week a federal judge threw their cases out upon recommendation by the very prosecutors who worked diligently to secure these convictions less than a year ago. The exact reasons for this dramatic sequence of events is unknown, but we do know that at least one corrupt FBI agent participated in the investigation. This particular agent, a 33-year old named Matthew Lowry, was found slumped over in his car with evidence bags containing heroin and firearms seized from the investigation. While this incident alone could create enough suspicion of wrongdoing to warrant new trials in the related cases, it’s more likely that the prosecutors became aware of far greater corruption. Corruption that prompted immediate and unfettered action.
From a defense perspective, federal investigations are notorious for being meticulous and by the book. Federal prosecutors are often directly involved with investigations so they can advice law enforcement of the legal restraints on searches, seizures, and interrogations. And the law enforcement agencies themselves have almost unlimited resources such as technology, manpower, and time. The reputation is for the most part deserved that when federal prosecutors pursue a case, they trust their investigators, and believe the charges will stick. Contrast this with state investigations, where prosecutors often know nothing about a case until a few days before the trial date, and local cops sometimes have little knowledge or concern about the Constitution. When a state case is brought back to court and dismissed post-trial due to law enforcement misconduct there is rarely much of a fuss unless the charges involve homicide or rape. But it’s always a big deal in federal court, and rightly so. Federal law enforcement agencies are more selective in their hiring, the agents make more money, and in general they are held in higher regard (and no, TSA is not a law enforcement agency). It’s an embarrassment on the country when an FBI agent is caught shooting the same dope he allegedly seized from a convicted drug dealer. The media picks up on these stories and they are justified in doing so, as the public should know.
It seems like there will be more to come out of this story in the near future, as we get the sense that federal prosecutors have more dirt on this corrupt agent and his colleagues. When information such as corrupt police work comes across a prosecutor’s desk, he or she is obligated to tell the defense attorney. This is called exculpatory or Brady evidence, and it is mandatory disclosure. So in this drug trafficking ring, when the US attorney’s office received info about corrupt FBI agents they had to spill the beans. But hypothetically if there were an ongoing investigation that the US attorney’s office or FBI internal affairs did not want to go public yet, then the only way to keep it under wraps would have been to dismiss charges against all defendants who may have been affected, therefore rendering the disclosure moot. Now this doesn’t mean that a hypothetical internal investigation will stay secret forever. If charges are filed they will eventually become public, and if the freed defendants choose to retain counsel to file suit then the full details of the corruption will eventually come to light. This will probably happen; as it is highly unlikely that one FBI agent’s heroin binge alone would result in the swift dismissal of 14 drug trafficking convictions. The US attorney’s office definitely was not pleased to be forced to request that these convictions be stricken, and we hope they won’t take it easy on agent Lowry, and any other agents responsible for this disgrace.
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland drug crimes attorney who handles cases in both state and federal court. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation at 410-207-2598.
Probe of FBI agent has devastating effect on D.C. drug cases, washingtonpost.com.