A Hennepin County judge will not dismiss drug charges in a case that brought to light revelations that Minneapolis police officers shredded files in a panic following last summer's riots, but the judge granted an order prohibiting state and Minneapolis police from destroying evidence in the future.
In his order, Judge Todd Fellman said "we do not know what is possibly missing" after the impromptu file destruction by officers in northeast Minneapolis' Second Precinct. But that also means the defendant, Walter Power, is "unable to say with any degree of certainty that the information that was destroyed was at all related to this case," let alone relevant to clearing Power from the allegations against him.
Fellman also disagreed that the officers acted in "bad faith" in destroying the files, another prong of the legal analysis for dismissal.
"The events in Minneapolis in late May 2020 were unprecedented," Fellman wrote. "Minneapolis' 3rd Precinct was abandoned (and ultimately destroyed). It was with this backdrop that Officer [Logan] Johansson (and other officers) made the decision to destroy all old or nonactive case files of [criminal informants] and cooperating defendants so these files would not fall into the hands of individuals and consequently putting the lives of CI's and cooperating defendants at risk. It is easy to second guess that they could have or should moved the files somewhere else but there is no showing or finding that Officer Johansson singled out the Defendant's files for destruction."
Power was charged with first-degree drug sale on May 4, 2020, days after police raided his northeast Minneapolis rental unit, for allegedly possessing oxycodone pills, MDMA and marijuana. In order to get a judge to sign off on a no-knock warrant, police cited evidence they'd gathered through cellphone records, surveillance, trash and GPS data.
After the riots erupted a month later, police in the Second Precinct destroyed files "in direct response to the abandonment of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis by city leadership," according to an internal police document authored by Johansson. The Second Precinct is more than 5 miles from the Third Precinct, but the officers feared the rioters could target other police buildings across Minneapolis, according to statements from Johansson and other officers, which have become public in Power's court case.
Johansson said the officers had been told that documents stolen from the Third Precinct were leaked online. He understood that the "stated plan at the time was to abandon the precincts," according to the court documents, which is why he says police removed weapons and computers from other precincts.
The officers loaded case files into a car and parked it at a waterworks facility to hide the documents until the chaos died down. They shredded other documents they believed to be inactive, which they said contained information that could "put the lives of [informants] or various other cooperating defendants at risk."
In court documents and a hearing, Power's public defender, Elizabeth Karp, said the officers acted without oversight and against policy when they destroyed evidence critical to her client's case, including an informant file. Police also appeared to lose GPS data.
"There is nothing to suggest the unrest that Minneapolis is experiencing will end anytime soon," Karp wrote in court documents. "As such, this court must ensure the integrity of the judicial system remains intact and that all evidence used to build a criminal case … is preserved."
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Emily Liebman said the missing documents are not material to the charge. The evidence that would be presented at trial would all come from the search of Power's home, and that evidence is still intact, she said. Police also conducted surveillance and found evidence in Power's trash can that gave them cause for the search, Liebman said.
Fellman also sided with the prosecution in denying Karp's request for a Franks hearing, which would allow the defense to call police as witnesses to explore whether they gathered evidence illegally.
He said police destroying evidence appeared to be "highly situational" to last summer. "However, the Court is aware of the possible appearance of impropriety that is created by the destruction of any evidence or files — old or new — by police," Fellman wrote.
Karp and Liebman did not reply to requests for comment. In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney spokeswoman Lacey Severins said members of the office have read the order "and agree with it in all respects."
"Given that it is an active case, however, our office cannot comment on this further. We will let the case resolve itself through the subsequent court proceedings," Severins said.
Outside the courtroom, Minneapolis police say they have initiated an internal affairs investigation into whether police followed policy when they destroyed the files. That investigation is ongoing.
In an unrelated lawsuit, the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says Minnesota State Patrol troopers improperly purged e-mails and text messages after the riots, rendering it impossible to piece together a post-mortem analysis of how law enforcement responded to the unrest.
Last week, lawyers for the state disputed those allegations, saying they retained troves of records, and asked the judge to issue a protective order preventing the ACLU from making statements to the media.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036