Drug War

Phony Houston Drug Warrant Prompts FBI Investigation and Review of 1,400 Cases

Lying to justify a search that killed two people could be a capital crime.

|


Harris County District Attorney's Office

The fraudulent search warrant that authorized last month's deadly Houston drug raid has prompted an FBI investigation and a review of more than 1,400 cases involving the narcotics officer who obtained the warrant.

"The FBI Houston Field Office has opened an independent civil rights investigation into allegations that a search warrant obtained by Houston police officers was based on false, fabricated information," the FBI announced in a press release yesterday. "The execution of that search warrant at 7815 Harding Street, Houston, TX, on January 28, 2019, resulted in the deaths of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle as well as serious injuries to several Houston police officers."

Officer Gerald Goines, who was shot in the neck during the no-knock raid, obtained the warrant by claiming that he had sent a confidential informant into the house on January 27 to buy heroin from a man matching Tuttle's description. The C.I. supposedly returned with "a quantity of brown powder substance," subsequently identified as black-tar heroin, and reported that there many more bags of it in the house, along with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Police found neither of those things, or any other evidence of drug dealing, when they searched the house the next day after they killed Nicholas and Tuttle during a shootout they started by breaking into the house and killing the couple's dog with a shotgun.

After two informants named by Goines and every other C.I. known to work with him denied participating in the "controlled buy" he described, investigators concluded that Goines had invented the episode. Goines "lied in an affidavit," Police Chief Art Acevedo said last Friday, and "more than likely…will be charged with a serious crime." Under Texas law, lying in a search warrant affidavit is aggravated perjury, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison. Under federal law, willfully depriving someone of his constitutional rights "under color of any law" is punishable by a prison term up to life or by execution "if death results."

The Harris County District Attorney's Office, meanwhile, is examining "more than 1,400 criminal cases" in which Goines has been involved since joining the Houston Police Department in 1984. "Our duty is to see that justice is done in every case," Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a press release yesterday. "Although the criminal investigation of Officer Goines is ongoing, we have an immediate ethical obligation to notify defendants and their lawyers in Goines' other cases to give them an opportunity to independently review any potential defenses." The defendants in 27 pending cases were notified yesterday, while "notification in older cases will be ongoing."

Judges routinely rubber-stamp search warrant applications like the one that Goines submitted in this case, where a single officer acting on an anonymous tip claims to have arranged a drug purchase by an unnamed C.I. Since there is no way for the judge to verify the applicant's claims, he simply has to trust that the cop is not making shit up. Once it is clear that a cop is willing to make shit up, that trust evaporates, calling into question the validity of every search warrant he has ever obtained. As the Houston Chronicle reported last week, Goines had already been accused of perjury and mishandling evidence in an ongoing drug case where he was also suspected of inventing a C.I. It seems likely that many defendants will have grounds to challenge convictions based on Goines' testimony or on evidence discovered in searches authorized by warrants that he obtained.

"We welcome closer scrutiny into his work," Nicole DeBorde, a lawyer for Goines, told The New York Times. "He's been a police officer for 35 years, and what I'm hearing is that he's a man of integrity and his colleagues think highly of him." If so, one has to wonder what integrity means within the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division.

Addendum: By noting that judges cannot independently verify controlled buys described by narcotics officers, I did not mean to imply that there were no grounds for Houston Municipal Court Judge Gordon Marcum, who approved the warrant in this case, to be skeptical of Goines' affidavit. Tuttle and Nicholas had lived at 7815 Harding Street for more than three decades; they were well-known in the neighborhood and publicly listed as residents. Yet in his affidavit, Goines refers to Tuttle as "a white male, whose name is unknown." That should have been a red flag indicating that Goines' investigation, which supposedly "had been going on for approximately two (2) weeks," was less than thorough. Goines also said he "advised" the C.I. that "narcotics were being sold and stored" at the house, but he cited no evidence of that, notwithstanding his two-week investigation. Goines claimed another narcotics officer, Steven Bryant, recognized the brown powder as heroin, a detail that Bryant has since contradicted. One wonders what Bryant would have said if Marcum had asked him to verify Goines' account.