The Okmulgee County District Attorney has moved to disqualify one of the area’s two district judges from hearing all cases prosecuted by his office, saying the judge has a bias against law enforcement witnesses.
Defense attorneys told the Tulsa World they are outraged by the move, contending the judge has rightly questioned the truthfulness of police testimony.
In a motion filed Monday, District Attorney Rob Barris contends District Judge Kenneth Adair has found that officers’ statements were false in four felony drug-related cases and used that conclusion to make rulings in favor of the defendants in each.
Barris wrote that he has been told Adair also has commented to others about officers — particularly those in Okmulgee — of having a “systemic” problem with “testilying.”
The DA additionally alleges that Adair violated the state’s judicial ethics code when the judge went to a crime scene and used his observations during an April hearing on a motion to suppress evidence collected by an Okmulgee police officer in a 2016 drug case. Barris wrote that Adair paused the hearing to visit the scene alone and denied a June motion to re-open the case because of his behavior.
As a result of the disqualification motion, Adair on Wednesday stayed proceedings in more than 200 cases assigned to his court until December pending a hearing set for Aug. 28-30 and, if needed, an appeal on any decision made.
Barris declined to comment beyond his statements in the motion.
The motion has frustrated defense lawyers with clients in Okmulgee County, with two attorneys telling the Tulsa World that Barris is trying to punish Adair for working to verify the testimony that law enforcement officers give in his courtroom.
“It’s going to cause a chilling effect, I think, on judges in the future being able to scrutinize an officer’s testimony like they would any other person in the courtroom,” said Okmulgee-based attorney Justin Mosteller, who has four clients due in Adair’s courtroom within the next month.
“This is what defense attorneys do,” he said. “If police officers are to be believed in every single case, I don’t understand why a defense attorney would ever be necessary.”
Tulsa attorney Jay Ramey represented three of the four defendants named in Barris’ motion, and had two clients with court dates on Wednesday, as well as two others within the upcoming week.
He said the halted proceedings are “problematic” for a county such as Okmulgee, which has only three judges. He said people who are in custody will have to wait even longer for resolutions despite their right to a speedy trial.
“I don’t see how (Adair’s rulings) are a bias against the District Attorney’s Office,” Ramey said. “Police officers are witnesses. They are not employees of the District Attorney’s Office.”
Ramey successfully persuaded Adair to grant motions to suppress evidence in drug cases in 2014, 2015 and 2016, with the judge finding in each that arresting officers either embellished the facts, overstated their technical knowledge or lied in search warrant reports.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously affirmed Adair’s ruling in Ramey’s 2015 case, calling the arresting officer’s conduct a “flagrant abuse” of the defendant’s constitutional rights. The appellate court, like Adair, determined the officer’s testimony during the suppression hearing showed the defendant was arrested unlawfully, did not properly receive a Miranda warning and gave a confession under coercion.
The 2014 case resulted in a deferred sentence on one count and the dismissal of the other two. Prosecutors have a pending appeal of Adair’s ruling in the 2016 case.
“It’s refreshing to hear a judge say these things,” Ramey said of Adair’s rulings. “Too many judges across this country will not question anything a police officer says. … He’s more willing to listen to the (defense’s) argument and more willing to question what police officers testify to.”
But Barris alleged Adair has made comments to other attorneys and a special judge about specific officers being untruthful, which he said is inappropriate.
Special Judge Pandee Ramirez “reports that when she expressed her concern over (Adair’s) belief that he needed to ‘fix’ law enforcement by calling them liars from the bench, he replied that he ‘had to start somewhere,’” Barris wrote. “This implies to the state that the court has some sort of an agenda, rather than maintaining a fair and impartial position as required by law and the judicial canons.”
Mosteller said Barris’ motion is not the appropriate remedy for issues the prosecution might have with rulings in specific cases or statements about those matters. He said Adair’s work to take defendants’ claims seriously should be encouraged rather than discouraged by motions that attempt to attach political implications to being skeptical of police witnesses.
“Police officers are human beings like the rest of us, and they make mistakes,” Mosteller said. “It seems to me the state is asking for a presumption in the officer’s favor about the truthfulness of their testimony.”