Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Expert: Accused sheriffs face more scrutiny

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 3/15/2013

It might be a first for Franklin County, but Jeff Curry isn’t the only sheriff in Kansas’ history to face criminal charges.

Recent years even have seen a handful of Sunflower State sheriffs removed from office.

It might be a first for Franklin County, but Jeff Curry isn’t the only sheriff in Kansas’ history to face criminal charges.

Recent years even have seen a handful of Sunflower State sheriffs removed from office.

In 2001, then-Shawnee County Sheriff Dave Meneley faced two counts of criminal perjury and 20 counts of theft and misuse of public funds. And in 2003, then-Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall filed 34 counts of bribery against Reno County’s sheriff at the time, Larry Leslie. Last summer, former Rooks County Sheriff Randy Axelson plead guilty to four felony charges, including two counts of distribution of methamphetamine.

Franklin County’s sheriff now is grappling with a felony charge of his own — interference with law enforcement and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct. In late September, prosecutors say, Curry lied about unlawfully using confidential information to privately benefit himself, another or to cause harm to another.

‘A lot more at stake’

While case details vary greatly, history can provide contextual insight on how court proceedings against elected law enforcement officials might be approached, perceived and affected by prosecutors, defendants and the public.

Though uncommon, bringing charges against a sitting sheriff or other law enforcement official is not unheard of in Kansas, Michael Kaye, a 34-year veteran professor of criminal law at Washburn University, said.

“We hope it won’t happen because we trust them to carry out the law and not to break it,” Kaye said Friday.

“I think what it tells you is that a lot of such people are subject to the same kind of pressures that everybody else is, and sometimes it gets beyond them,” he said.

Speaking in generalities rather than on specific proceedings, Kaye, who also is the director of Washburn’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy, noted differences between criminal cases involving elected officials and rank-and-file citizens, including the potential for more serious punishments.

“You’re dealing with someone who has a lot more at stake than a non-official,” Kaye said. “Those people can be punished much more severely because of the public trust they’ve got.”

During his January sentencing, former Rooks County Sheriff Axelson’s punishment apparently was stiffened because of his elected status. Judge Edward Bouker sentenced Axelson to four years and one month in prison, saying that if he hadn’t been sheriff at the time of his crimes, he likely would have received probation because of his family situation, according to the Hays Daily News.

Another difference, Kaye added, are the methods to ensure a fair trial for the accused. As with Sheriff Curry’s proceedings, such cases often require outside prosecutors or judges to help limit the appearance of conflicting interests, he said. Senior Judge John E. Sanders, El Dorado, now is presiding over Curry’s case after Chief Judge Phillip Fromme asked the Kansas Supreme Court to assign a judge outside the Fourth Judicial District. Franklin County Attorney Stephen Hunting previously had asked the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office designate a special prosecutor to the case.

The often high-profile nature surrounding criminal cases involving elected officials also presents an issue in providing a fair trial, Kaye said. Whether through gossip or extensive media coverage, a judge might opt to seal information on a case to limit the potential of a prejudicial jury. Before Curry’s Feb. 27 arrest was publicly announced, Franklin County District Court Judge Thomas H. Sachse sealed documents relating to both the criminal and civil ouster case against the sheriff.

“The reason they’re sealing [details on a case involving an elected official] is because they’re afraid that he won’t be able to get a fair trial if people start making up their minds right away,” Kaye said. “[But] the longer the information doesn’t get out, it provokes the form of disequilibrium in the community.”

Plea bargains used

When compared to other sheriffs’ cases, it appears prosecutors often seek plea bargains to ensure a conviction. Such was the case for Axelson in July, when five charges against him were dismissed in exchange for four guilty pleas — two counts of distribution of methamphetamine and two counts of distribution of methamphetamine within 1,000 feet of school property.

In a case that spanned three years, former Shawnee County Sheriff Meneley initially faced 22 counts of various crimes, including 16 counts of felony theft, during an investigation into whether a Shawnee County sheriff’s deputy stole drugs from the office’s evidence room. Ultimately, most of the charges were dropped against Meneley, who plead guilty to three misdemeanor offenses and was ordered to pay fees and an unspecified amount of restitution in addition to being placed on one year of supervised probation.

Former Reno County Sheriff Leslie accepted a plea deal in October 2002 in admitting guilt to a misdemeanor conflict of interest charge. Leslie illegally failed to disclose his substantial interest in MgtGp Inc. after he and Hutchinson attorney Gerald Hertach won a contract to run Reno County’s jail annex, according to The Hutchinson News. Leslie accepted $284,000 in payments from the annex. Leslie was sentenced to serve one year in jail, and the deal included a “joint or separate” agreement to pay Reno County $750,000 in restitution.

Lasting effects

When a law enforcement officer is convicted of such a crime as obstruction of justice or interference with law enforcement, Kaye said, that could have a collateral effect on other cases with which the officer was involved. Tampering with or mishandling evidence, he said as an example, could discredit other cases and convictions.

“It could affect other cases, too,” Kaye said. “If an officer obstructs justice — say by mishandling evidence, as an example — that could taint a criminal case.”

The other effect of a law enforcement officer’s conviction can be seen in the public response, Kaye said. If one officer is guilty of a crime, it could cause the public to lose faith in or question law enforcement’s authority.

“It also causes the public to distrust the system, and that distrust can have negative consequences as far as obeying the law goes,” Kaye said. “It’s hard on the community.”

In addition to the stress such cases might place on residents served by the elected official charged with a crime, the effect on law enforcement’s credibility as a whole can be tinged. During Meneley’s case, Sgt. Randy Listrom, then a veteran narcotics investigator for the Topeka Police Department, wrote a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal asking the former sheriff to resign. In the letter, Listrom implored citizens to become more involved in community policing, as well as officers’ desire to exhibit their core ideals.

“This is not a case of lying about sex, this issue goes to the core of your profession — truth and justice. This is not about politics — it is about judgment and accountability, about leadership and honesty,” Listrom wrote in his 1999 letter to the Capital-Journal. “We want to exhibit honesty, integrity and professionalism. ... When an incident like this comes up, it casts a shadow on the whole profession.”

In the Curry case, Franklin County Attorney Hunting quickly called on the sheriff to resign, launching an ouster proceeding aimed at removing Curry from office Feb. 27, the same day he and Jerrod W. Fredricks, master deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, were arrested.

When urging Curry’s resignation, Hunting indicated law enforcement officers were not above the law, but would be held accountable like other community members.

“Regardless of station in life ... you have to abide by and uphold the law,” the county’s top prosecutor said.

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