SHELBY COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - A war of words is raging between Shelby County's District Attorney and local law enforcement agencies.
Shelby County District Attorney Ken Florence sent a lengthy letter to the editor to "The Light and Champion" newspaper. In turn, the newspaper posted the letter to its Facebook page.
Florence opened the letter by saying that it was a rebuttal to "claims of improper handling of drug cases" made by the Shelby County Sheriff and the Center Police chief.
"Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of having to defend the conduct of my office after certain unfavorable comments made in the July 8, 2014 issue of the Light and Champion Newspaper by the Shelby County Sheriff and the Center Police Department Chief," Florence said in the letter to the newspaper. "The sheriff has also made negative assertions on the local radio. Basically, these officials claim that the judges and I are not properly handling drug cases.
I believe such public comments negatively undermine our joint mission of fighting crime and getting the bad guys off of the streets, and are also false and defamatory."
When East Texas News reached out to Florence for comment Thursday, he declined, saying that what he had said was only meant for the newspaper. Shelby County Sheriff Willis Blackwell did not return a call to his cell phone. In addition, East Texas News was told that Center Police Chief Jim Albers would be out of town until Monday.
In his letter to the editor, Florence explained that as the top lawyer for Shelby County, he is required to conduct the affairs of his office within the bounds of the law and the U.S. Constitution.
"Recently, over a period of 6 weeks, two very major drug cases have been improperly investigated by these departments so that the cases cannot be prosecuted in a court of
law," Florence said in his letter. "Thousands of seized dollars cannot be legally taken from these drug dealers, and though very large quantities of drugs have been taken off of the street, the perpetrators cannot be brought to justice."
Florence said he is "not happy" about how those two cases ultimately played out, adding that he was looking forward to a taking a large-scale drug case to trial to send a message to the community that drugs will not be tolerated.
"Most of the drug cases I see are lower-level 'dime bag' state-jail felony type cases," Florence wrote in his letter.
Florence stressed that there are very good officers both the Shelby County Sheriff's Office and the Center Police Department.
"But what is lacking in each department is effective oversight and quality control," Florence said in the letter to the editor. "When a large drug raid occurs, the sheriff and the chief are quick to trumpet the raid in the press. When the legal cases fail due to incomplete investigation, constitutional violations, or ineptness on follow through, I cannot make them whole."
Florence said when those cases went "down in flames," he didn't go to the press to point out those departments' shortcomings and failures because he thought it would send the wrong message to the public and to the criminals.
However. Florence wrote in his letter that "Enough is enough."
"The May 12, 2014 joint Center P.D. and Sheriff's Office raid that netted over $15,000 in
illegal drug profits, crack cocaine, marijuana, methadone, and firearms was based upon a glaringly invalid search warrant," Florence said. "That raid was front page in the news, but the case cannot be prosecuted nor could the seizure of money be handled in court due to these law enforcement agencies getting a non-lawyer magistrate judge to sign the search warrant."
As a result of the raid, the county is now facing another lawsuit, Florence wrote in his letter.
"This raid took place in Tenaha; if I were a Center tax payer, I would be asking why the chief is putting our tax dollars at risk in an operation in another jurisdiction outside the city?" Florence said. "Helping out in a murder or manhunt is good policy, but running drug raids on obviously erroneous search warrants outside of your jurisdiction just puts the taxpayers at risk of another lawsuit."
Florence alleged that the Center Police Department had erroneously raided a house next door to where the drugs were found in Tenaha.
"However, the terrified couple who erroneously had their door kicked in did sue the Center Police Department," Florence wrote in the letter.
Later in the letter, Florence went on to contend that when the sheriff's office caught a man with methamphetamine in the Shelby County Jail, the SCSO failed to send the drugs off to a laboratory for testing.
"I did not fail to properly prosecute that case; the Sheriff's Department failure to follow through made the case impossible to prosecute," Florence said.
Florence also spoke out about two large drug raids on June 25 that Albers "trumpeted." He said even though the raids were big and too large quantities of PCP, marijuana, and Codeine off the street, one of the search warrants used in the raids is invalid.
"The search warrant errors just leap off of the page at you," Florence wrote in his letter. "I have tried to salvage the cases, but the error is of a magnitude that even after arguing a 'good faith exception,' the court will surely be forced to throw the evidence out."
The Shelby County DA said in his letter that the other search warrant is in jeopardy as well because most of the drugs were found outside the place to be searched, and the officers were unable to "affirmatively link" the arrested individuals to most of the drugs during their testimony.
"The law is the law, and no amount of spin can salvage the cases," Florence said.
Florence said that it has been standard practice for law enforcement to bring search warrants to the Shelby County District Attorney's Office for review since before he was elected.
"In the above-mentioned cases, that was not done," Florence said. "Those search warrants were drafted and signed when I was in the office and available to assist. I know, I checked."
Later in the letter, Florence said there is another large problem that those in law enforcement are facing. He said the sheriff's office, the Center Police Department, the DA's office, the county attorney's office, the judges, and the court fund have all dealt with large budget cuts over the past two years. Giving an example, he said that his office's budget has been cut approximately 40 percent in the last two years.
"There is no way around it; such large cuts impede our ability to do our jobs," Florence wrote in his letter.
Florence said that neighboring Panola County has worked approximately 5,054 criminal cases in the past five years. In comparison, Shelby County has prosecuted 5,584 criminal cases. The DA went on to point out that while Panola County has a district attorney and two assistant district attorneys, he works alone.
To read Florence's letter in its entirety, click this link.