Botched case spurs changes
Aspen’s district attorney has expressed regret that an innocent Brit was held in jail here for 19 days on cocaine charges, after local tests cast doubt about whether the substance involved was illegal.
District Attorney Mac Myers said Friday he is taking steps to ensure that police and court procedures never again result in an innocent man spending time in jail.
Some 25 grams of “white, powdery substance” found in David Palmer’s belongings July 10 – which initially field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine and led to a warrant for Palmer’s July 15 arrest and jailing – did not contain any controlled substances. That’s according to results of definitive, Colorado Bureau of Investigations testing, announced Friday.
A motion to drop all charges against Palmer – one felony count of possession of cocaine and one felony count of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute – was filed Friday in Pitkin County’s 9th Judicial District Court. Presently, Palmer is free on a personal recognizance bond.
Palmer’s troubles with the law began July 10, when police found him slumped on the ground near the corner of Original Street and Durant Avenue in an “unresponsive state” and had an ambulance transport him to Aspen Valley Hospital.
At AVH, staffers discovered a baggie of white powder in his belongings and alerted the police. Aspen Police Officer Bill Linn conducted a field test on the substance, which produced a positive result for the presence of cocaine, later that day. Based on that information, Judge J.E. DeVilbiss issued a warrant for Palmer’s arrest on July 14. The following day, Palmer was arrested by authorities and jailed on a $10,000 bond.
At Palmer’s first court appearance on July 19, the defendant told Judge DeVilbiss that the baggie was full of baking soda. He later told The Aspen Times that he planned to use it to clean pots and pans on an upcoming camping trip. He also said he had passed out on the ground due to an unanticipated reaction to pain medication that he had been taking in the wake of a back operation.
Due to Palmer’s testimony, Aspen Deputy District Attorney Lawson Wills ordered the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to perform additional field tests on the powder. Three tests – two for cocaine and one for methamphetamines – were conducted later on July 19, and all produced negative results. The powder was then sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations for further, definitive testing.
But despite Palmer’s claims and the conflicting results produced by the standard field tests used by local law enforcement agencies, Palmer remained in jail for two more weeks. Then, on Aug. 2, Wills submitted the three follow-up, negative tests to the court. Based on that new evidence, DeVilbiss granted Palmer a personal recognizance bond and he was released.
No earlier court dates, when the follow-up test results could have been brought to the court’s attention, were available, said Deputy District Attorney Rich Orman of the 9th Judicial District.
Orman, conceding that “it is very unfortunate that Mr. Palmer had to spend time in jail,” said that due to a combination of a heavy court schedule and equally heavy case load for the district attorney’s office, it was unavoidable.
Myers, however, admitted that his deputies could have arranged by telephone to have Palmer’s bond lowered from $10,000 to a personal recognizance bond. Such a measure would have spared Palmer 14 days in jail.
“It’s an awful thing to have a guy sitting in jail when he’s innocent,” Myers said, adding that he has instructed local police to review their training requirements concerning the performance of field tests of suspected drugs, and that he will be looking into his office’s procedures in cases such as this one.
“We don’t want anything like that to happen again,” he said.
He said no disciplinary action is planned regarding the handling of the case.
“I don’t think anyone in our office has done anything wrong,” he maintained.
Myers and others have insisted that the field tests normally are quite accurate, and that while something must have gone wrong in this one instance, increased vigilance and training should prevent such mishaps in the future.
“This is the first one I’ve seen in 20 years around here,” Myers said. “I think the likelihood of it happening again is very rare.”
The CBI tests came back negative for a number of illicit drugs, including cocaine, according to Orman.
Orman said the report from CBI did not indicate what the substance was. Wills, who is on vacation, was not available for comment.
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