CAMDEN, NJ – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey today announced the filing of a lawsuit on behalf of an innocent Camden, New Jersey man jailed for more than a year as the result of drugs planted on him by police officers later implicated in a wide-scale drug-planting conspiracy affecting nearly 200 other Camden residents.
Joel Barnes was at a friend’s house in August 2008 when Camden police officers Robert Bayard and Antonio Figueroa entered the friend’s home without a search warrant, detained Barnes, demanded information from him that he did not have, and then arrested him for unlawful possession of a controlled substance after planting drugs on him.
Earlier this year, Camden police officers Kevin Michael Parry and Jason Stetser, also at the scene at the time of Barnes’ arrest, pleaded guilty to numerous federal charges, including conspiring to deprive others of their civil rights. Parry admitted to a federal judge in March that he and several other Camden police officers, including Stetser, Figueroa and Bayard, planted drugs on innocent people. The officers threatened to arrest individuals on charges related to that planted evidence if they refused to implicate themselves in crimes.
“Planting evidence on innocent people in order to send them to prison is one of the most serious forms of police misconduct, and police who engage in such behavior must be held accountable,” said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Mr. Barnes deserves to be compensated for the year of his life now lost forever and for the trauma he suffered at the hands of these corrupt officers.”
After Figueroa and Bayard entered his friend’s house on August 2, 2008, police handcuffed and unlawfully detained Barnes in a van outside the friend’s home for more than an hour despite not being in possession of any illegal drugs or contraband. Every so often, Figueroa would return to the van and ask Barnes, “Where’s the [expletive] at?” Surmising that Figueroa was referring to controlled substances, Barnes truthfully responded that he was unaware of any drugs in the house.
Figueroa then pulled out a bag containing drugs and said, “Tell us where the [expletive] at and we’ll make this disappear.” Barnes was told that the drugs in the bag would carry much more serious criminal charges than any drugs that might be found and that he would receive a shorter period of incarceration if he told police the location of any drugs potentially in the house. But because Barnes could only truthfully say that he knew of no drugs in the house, he was arrested for unlawful possession of a controlled substance, unlawful possession of a controlled substance with an intent to distribute the substance, and unlawful possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school zone – charges that ordinarily carry between 10 and 20 years imprisonment.
“I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” said Barnes. “I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I also knew that the officers had all of the power and I had none. It’s disturbing that the police officers who are supposed to protect the community were the ones breaking the law, misusing their power, and abusing so many innocent people.”
Barnes initially pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him but, fearing a jury would be far more likely to believe the officers’ testimony than his own truthful testimony, and not wanting to risk spending his remaining youth in prison, he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful drug possession within 1,000 feet of a school zone. Barnes entered the Camden County Jail on April 17, 2009. However, after Parry and Stetser pleaded guilty to the criminal charges against them, the conviction against Barnes was vacated and he walked out of custody freed on June 8, 2010 – having served one year, one month and 24 days in incarceration.
“The plight of Mr. Barnes highlights the urgent need for far-reaching and systemic reforms in the Camden Police Department,” said Jay Rorty, Director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “Had there been proper supervision, Camden’s police officers would not have been able to plant drugs on Camden residents in the first place. The public’s faith in the fairness of the criminal process rests on the integrity of police officers. Concrete steps need to be taken immediately in order to restore the public’s trust in its police force.”