Catching drug criminals in York County often requires covert, or undercover, police activity.
Late this year a man was sentenced to eight years in prison after a jury convicted him for dealing drugs outside a Rock Hill Walmart.
A year ago drug officers caught and convicted what many describe as York County’s largest meth dealer. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit had a hand in these cases. The unit regularly investigates high-level drug offenses.
Commander Marvin Brown, who leads the unit, says covert investigations are done without breaking laws or infringing on people’s rights.
A Rock Hill criminal defense attorney disagrees. Brad Rawlinson says the drug enforcement unit uses covert tactics to evade public scrutiny.
In a Nov. 9 letter to the unit and several York County law enforcement agencies, Rawlinson said the unit uses “predatory tactics” — plain-clothes officers, unmarked vehicles and all the officers don’t use body cameras.
He also said the unit coerces suspects into becoming informants. Rawlinson said officers sometimes don’t enter a suspect’s name in the York County Moss Justice Center website after an arrest, making it difficult for friends and family to find their loved one.
“They are a secret police,” Rawlinson said. “I don’t know how else you can describe them. Any time you have people being arrested and no one can find them, any time you have a group of officers who are literally exempt from community, no cameras or uniforms or marked cars, you have a secret police force.”
Rawlinson said he is committed to exposing police wrongdoing.
“It is clear these tactics are not designed to further a legitimate policing purpose, and only serve to insulate this unit and their activities from public scrutiny,” Rawlinson said. “You have operated in the shadows for too long.”
Rawlinson has made some demands, including:
▪ Outfit all drug enforcement vehicles with radar and dash cameras.
▪ Require officers to wear body cameras at all times.
▪ Immediately post information of suspects arrested on the county jail website.
▪ Do not use unmarked cars during routine traffic enforcement.
You have operated in the shadows for too long.
Brad Rawlinson, criminal defense attorney
The York County drug enforcement unit is made up of officers from eight law enforcement agencies. Each officer operates based on the camera policies of their department. Five — Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Winthrop and York police departments, and the York County Sheriff’s Office — have body cameras. Clover and Tega Cay police departments, and the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, do not.
Kevin Brackett, who leads the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, oversees the drug enforcement unit. Police chiefs for each law enforcement agency select officers for the 25-man unit to work with Brown, a 41-year law enforcement professional, and three supervisors.
Operating in a covert fashion is key to putting serious drug felons behind bars, Brackett said. Covert activities often include long-term surveillance.
“We’re very diligent to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” Brackett said. “I don’t think people understand that a significant portion of my violent crime docket stems from the trafficking of narcotics. Requiring this unit to drive in marked vehicles would undermine public safety in ways people can’t begin to understand.”
Brackett said about half of all homicides on his docket are drug-related.
He said officers can’t use dash cameras or radars in the cars because that would reveal a police investigation.
Brown said officers ask suspects to become informants to help catch higher-ranking traffickers who deal in larger amounts of drugs or money. If a suspect is willing to be an informant, Brown said he sometimes will allow the suspect to call a loved one.
He also said he can offer to keep the suspect’s name off the website for a short time to assist in a specific investigation. Suspects names normally appear on the Moss Justice Center website, which has public access, when they are in jail. If a dealer can see that a former buyer has been arrested, the dealer might disappear, Brown said.
“Let’s say we pick you up and you say ‘I can help you, I can put a kilo on the table,’” Brown said. “But you don’t want to be on the website. I say, ‘OK, fine, that’s up to you, you’re a grown adult. You can call your family or not, it’s not up to me.’ I don’t think I should be calling your family and telling them what your business is.”
Brown said neither he nor members of his unit have coerced anyone to become an informant. He said it’s important for an informant to be willing, and able to work for the unit. An informant is asked to sign an agreement saying they will not violate any laws, they will testify in open court if needed, and they’re willing to use an undercover camera to help catch a drug dealer.
“You can’t operate if you’re not in covert fashion,” Brackett said.
Drug unit effectiveness
Brackett said, since 2014, the drug enforcement unit has taken more than $4 million worth of drugs off the street. He said the numbers include 11 kilograms of meth, 325 kilos of marijuana, 25 kilos of powdered cocaine, two kilos of crack cocaine and 1.4 kilos of heroin. A kilogram is roughly 2.2 pounds, or the weight of a standard 1-liter bottle of soda.
Many drug dealers are armed, Brackett said. He said the unit has taken 270 guns out of the hands of dealers or gang members in the past three years.
Brackett said the drug enforcement unit’s success is defined by whether they get dangerous criminals off the street. He said the unit made 890 arrests in 2014, 730 in 2015, and 620 in 2016. As of early December 2017, he said the unit made about 500 arrests.
“If you look at it, year-to-year, that’s a significant drop,” Brackett said. “That’s a reasonable conclusion that it is effective.”
The conviction rate for drug cases prosecuted by his office in 2017 is 67 percent, Brackett said. He said the number would be higher but some cases went to drug court. Brackett said he’s sent countless people to drug court for help with addiction if they’re buying and selling drugs to support their own habit. He said he focuses on prosecuting drug offenders who are engaged with high-level offenses.
Challenging the unit
This is not Rawlinson’s first foray into discussions about law enforcement.
In summer 2016, as the leader of the Concerned Black Citizens of the city of Rock Hill, Rawlinson initiated a series of discussions on race, law enforcement and the black community.
Concerned Black Citizens of Rock Hill delivered its own list of demands to the Rock Hill Police Department. That list also included a mandate for body cameras, plus a request for complaint statistics and a monthly public forum with Chief Chris Watts.
Rawlinson said the city complied with several of the demands. After meeting with city officials that summer, Rock Hill approved a $1.3 million purchase of camera equipment. City officials had been researching ways to outfit more than 150 officers dating back to January 2016.
Now, Rawlinson is back.
He has offered to represent, free of charge, defendants who have been charged by the York County drug enforcement unit and feel they’ve been treated unfairly. He said he will support his efforts through a nonprofit set up in November called Operation Miobe. The nonprofit’s name “Miobe” comes from an Ethiopian folktale that teaches the value of standing up to challenges. He said he plans to fund his efforts through a website, youcaring.com/operationmiobe-1004294.
“Everyone’s afraid to challenge the DEU,” Rawlinson said. “The (unit is) signed off by our head prosecutor. These are essentially York County’s Gestapo.”
A member of the American Civil Liberties Union calls some of the drug enforcement unit’s methods “problematic.”
Susan Dunn, the legal director for the South Carolina ACLU, said discussions between a potential confidential informant and an officer from the drug enforcement unit could raise ethical questions.
“When there’s no one but the police and likely someone that’s scared to death, how can those agreements be voluntary?” Dunn said. “How can someone be entering into those things without access to legal advice without potentially exposing themselves to additional danger?”
Brown said, in some cases, defense attorneys will call the prosecutor’s office to say their client wants to help with a drug investigation in exchange for a plea deal. However, Melissa Inzerillo, an attorney with the 16th Circuit Public Defender’s Office, said confidential informant arrangements also are done on the side of the road without a lawyer.
“What happens a lot of the time is that those deals are made at the time of arrest or the time that warrants are generated, long before attorneys are met,” Inzerillo said. “The majority of the time, in my view, it’s done without an attorney, which is a danger.”
Rawlinson said he’ll listen to anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly. And, until the demands listed on the Nov. 9 letter are met, he’ll continue a “long-term fight” in the courtroom.