Video raises questions about arrest by Chicago cop
Jan 07, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
On a report in June 2010, Chicago police Officer Jose Velez wrote that he arrested Lance Conley after he saw Conley place a bag of what turned out to be heroin in the grass at the base of a tow zone sign across the street from his home. Velez testified under oath to the same allegations at a preliminary hearing a month after Conley's arrest. And, at trial in 2011, the officer again testified he saw Conley with the bag of heroin.
Conley, charged with felony possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, faced going to state prison if convicted.
The only problem was that Conley had hours of video from security cameras he had installed around the West Side bungalow he shares with his wife and daughter that raised significant doubts about Velez's account of the arrest. Indeed, the video from the time of the arrest appears to show the now-41-year-old computer tech and odd jobber hanging around with friends.
Despite the video, which Conley's attorneys turned over to Cook County prosecutors and which the officer watched, the state's attorney's office took Conley to trial. And though the judge did not allow the video into evidence, Conley's lawyers showed frames of it and there was testimony about it. Indeed, it seemed to inform the trial. In the end, Conley was acquitted by the judge and later sued Velez, other officers on the case and the city of Chicago.
"If it wasn't on video, I'd have been in the penitentiary right now," Conley said as he stood at the tow zone sign one recent morning.
Conley recently settled the lawsuit for $99,000, said his attorney, James Koch, and a spokesman for the city's law department.
Velez and fellow officers who took part in the arrest admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Koch, a former prosecutor, said such incidents lead to a problem that should concern the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel: Questionable arrests make it harder for the police to win the cooperation of residents during criminal investigations. Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have publicly bemoaned the reluctance of some residents to cooperate with police during investigations.
"It's the same intimidation that goes on all over the place," Koch said. "It's no surprise people don't want to cooperate with the police."
City lawyers eventually conceded many of Conley's claims -- including that Velez referred to him by a racial term and that he told Conley that Conley was going "to take this case" -- essentially acknowledging that Velez arrested him on a whim.
After Conley's acquittal, Velez and other officers repeatedly went by his house, according to Conley's lawsuit. Conley said officers continue to harass him.
Now, the state's attorney's office and the police internal affairs division are investigating the case, according to sources.
Velez declined to comment.
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the office prosecuted the case against Conley "in good faith."
"Our view of the videotape at the time of trial, coupled with the police officers' sworn testimony, did not in our view exonerate the defendant," said Daly, who noted that the trial judge, Rickey Jones, did not allow either side to introduce the video as evidence at trial.
Conley lives in the drug- and gun-infested neighborhood where he grew up; he has lived in the same house since he was a month old. He has been arrested numerous times on drug charges and has a couple of convictions, although many arrests ended with the charges being dropped. He does odd jobs around the neighborhood, mostly carpentry and plumbing, and recently started a company that streams video from weddings, birthday parties and other events.
Conley's arrest, on June 28, 2010, was just one of the thousands of small-weight drug arrests that Chicago police make every year. In his testimony at the preliminary hearing and at trial, Velez said he was 10 to 15 yards away from the tow zone sign at Lavergne Avenue and Cortez Street, doing surveillance, when he saw someone drop something at the base of the sign. He and two other officers pulled up in an SUV and ordered Conley and the other men against a car, then dug around in the grass at the base of the sign until they found the heroin.
Later, testifying under oath as part of Conley's lawsuit, Velez said he and his fellow officers were stationed a block away, on Augusta Boulevard, when he witnessed the transaction. But the tow zone sign cannot be seen from where Velez said he was on Augusta; a building blocks the view.
After finding the drugs, Velez and the officers placed two men in a squadrol. But a moment later, Velez took one of the men out and told him he could go. He then arrested Conley as Conley protested that he had done nothing wrong. At a police station, Conley said he again told officers that he had not done anything and said he had video to support his claim. Conley told Velez he would regret arresting him.
Koch said he urged prosecutors to drop the case.
"I said, 'State's attorney, we've got videotape. You've seen it. You should drop this case,'" he said. "But they wouldn't do it."
City attorneys acknowledged that Conley's account of events was essentially correct. Velez said under questioning in advance of the trial that he had been mistaken when he said it was Conley he saw dropping the drugs -- although he identified Conley at trial.
Koch said he was skeptical that Velez simply made a mistake.
Since he was acquitted, Conley said, officers park outside his house, staring him down and sometimes even waving.
The city, in court papers, acknowledged, too, that officers have harassed Conley.
"What can I do " Conley said. "I live in the district where I sued the police."
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