A Lowell man is expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Lowell and a Lowell police officer who relied on two informants suspected of planting drugs on dozens of innocent victims, a scandal that already has led prosecutors to drop charges in 17 pending drug and firearm cases and to overturn two convictions.
Jonathan Santiago, a 25-year-old with no prior drug convictions whose case was among those dismissed, said an informant planted cocaine in the gas cap compartment of his car in February 2012, then alerted police, who arrested him. He said police then filed a false report that concealed the informant’s role.
“I just couldn’t believe it — that law enforcement would actually do something like this,” Santiago said in a Globe interview, adding that his arrest, jailing, and ensuing legal ordeal changed his life. “I pretty much stay home now. I don’t go out anymore. I feel like I can’t trust anyone.”
Santiago’s lawsuit says that scores of others may have suffered a similar fate, noting that one of the informants has been working with Lowell police for the last decade — the arresting officer in Santiago’s case alone has testified to using the informant in more than 50 cases. The lawsuit also says that “Lowell police officers allowed [the informant] to commit crimes because he assisted them as an informant.”
Neither the police officer, veteran Detective Thomas Lafferty, nor a spokesman for the Lowell police would address the specific allegations in the federal lawsuit, referring questions to the city’s legal department. Lowell’s chief legal official, City Solicitor Christine O’Connor, was unavailable for comment.
Defense lawyers said the allegations in the lawsuit echo disclosures in the case of Annie Dookhan, the state chemist whose allegedly faked drug analyses were used to obtain convictions that have now been overturned, and the trial of notorious gangster James “Whitey’ Bulger, who Bulger asserts was allowed by his FBI handlers to commit crimes in exchange for providing information on other criminals.
The Santiago lawsuit alleges “the widespread misuse of confidential informants in the Lowell Police Department” and a “policy or custom of tolerating violations of people’s constitutional rights in order to obtain convictions.”
Middlesex prosecutors dropped charges or vacated convictions against Santiago and 18 other defendants earlier this year after one of the informants advertised his services to the Massachusetts State Police and “boasted about his skill and experience in planting evidence,” citing specific examples of his work with the other informant on behalf of Lowell police, according to the lawsuit.
Last month, prosecutors issued a statement saying that “out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of fairness” it would dismiss any pending cases and vacate convictions in which information from either informant was used.
However, Middlesex prosecutors, aided by investigators from Essex County, said in the statement that their investigation of the Lowell Police Department’s use of the informants “from approximately 2010 through November 2012” found no wrongdoing by law enforcement. The prosecutors said the allegation against the informants is “uncorroborated.”
In addition, investigators were unable to find any evidence that the detectives “knew or should have known about their misconduct,” the statement from the Middlesex and Essex prosecutors said.
But Howard Friedman, a lawyer representing Santiago in the civil rights case, said Lowell police either knew or should have known that the informants were planting evidence because they had been working with them for so long.
“If this informant has been working for 10 years and the police officers do not know of his misconduct, that is damning,” Friedman said. “It is hard to believe the officers were that ignorant.”
Friedman also questioned the thoroughness of the district attorneys’ investigation, which only covered two years, especially since one of the informants apparently told State Police he was planting evidence. Friedman said that investigators did not interview Santiago or other wrongly charged defendants.
“Since there was no attempt to corroborate the allegation, of course it’s uncorroborated,” said Friedman, who suspects that innocent people may still be in prison due to evidence planted by the informants.
“Only two cases that ended in a conviction or plea have been vacated,” Freidman said, “but if Lafferty told the truth there are least 17 more convictions that should be overturned,” based on Lafferty’s own court testimony.
During a 2011 hearing in a separate drug case, Lafferty testified that he used information supplied by one of the informants “over 50” times and that 75 percent of the time, the information led to arrests. Of those who were arrested, about half pleaded guilty and sometimes were sent to prison, which translates to at least 17 more people potentially imprisoned based on false evidence.
The Globe is refraining from publishing the names of the informants because they have not been charged and their safety could be jeopardized if their identities are revealed.
Lowell defense attorney Steven J. Rappaport said that questions about the reliability of Lowell’s drug informants go beyond Lafferty. Rappaport said that 10 years ago, he represented a New Hampshire man charged with cocaine possession by Lowell police acting on information supplied by the same informant now suspected of planting drugs in Santiago’s car. At the time, Lafferty was not a member of the Special Investigations Section, which handles drug cases.
“This is not a Lafferty problem. This is a Lowell Police Department problem,” Rappaport said. “This goes back many years, over many administrations. There could be scores of guys sitting in prisons because of the use of this informant.”
In fact, the alleged use of at least one of the informants dates back to when Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis was Lowell’s chief from 1994 to 2006, though there is no evidence that Davis was involved with any of the cases involving the informant.
“The commissioner followed all departmental policies and rules during his time with the Lowell police,” said his spokeswoman, Cheryl Fiandaca.
Identifying all the drug defendants who may have been wrongly convicted or persuaded to plead guilty based on unreliable information from the informants could be difficult because Lowell police did not always acknowledge the informants’ involvement in cases.
Indeed, the lawsuit accuses the department of failing to keep records on the use of informants for more than 20 years. One law enforcement source told the Globe that the district attorneys’ investigation had to be limited because, before 2010, the Special Investigation Section’s records on informants were nonexistent.
In an effort to find out if additional people were convicted based on information provided by the informants, prosecutors granted immunity to one of the informants and questioned him in front of a Middlesex grand jury, the law enforcement source said.
Prosecutors have not been able to locate the other informant, the source added.
In his lawsuit, Santiago asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for an episode he said left him frightened and concerned that he would be “treated as a criminal for the rest of his life.”
The ordeal began after he left a friend’s apartment and encountered one of the informants, an acquaintance, who asked him to join him at a local bar for a drink, but insisted that he take his own car.
Lafferty and two other officers were waiting for Santiago and pulled him over, later asserting in a police report that Santiago had been swerving in the vehicle and circling the neighborhood “like a drug dealer.” Santiago said those assertions were false.
“To make it appear that they independently found the drugs,” the lawsuit says, “Lafferty called in a police dog to search Mr. Santiago’s car,” and the dog led officers to the gas cap compartment of Santiago’s car.
After opening the compartment, the lawsuit says, Lafferty and the other officers found nearly 27 grams of cocaine and booked Santiago on charges of cocaine trafficking and cocaine trafficking in a school zone, because Lafferty and the other officers “chose to stop Mr. Santiago’s car as he was driving near a school.”
Santiago was facing a mandatory five-year prison term when the charges against him were suddenly dropped.
When Santiago’s public defender, Julie Olsen, asked why, prosecutors told her there was a problem with the informant, which she said was the first time she realized an informant was involved in the case.
Looking back, Santiago said he was particularly traumatized at the thought of what his two young girls would think. “I wouldn’t want them to see me in prison. I wouldn’t want them to see me in that state,” he said.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at michael.rezendes