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Massachusetts man sues local police, claims they planted evidence

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - A Lowell, Massachusetts, man who was arrested on drug charges last year sued the city and the arresting officer on Tuesday, claiming that the police department routinely used informants to plant evidence on suspects.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, Jonathan Santiago claimed the city of Lowell and police Detective Thomas Lafferty violated his civil rights against unreasonable search and seizure and due process.

"For more than 20 years, the Lowell Police Department ignored its own written policies on the use of confidential informants," the suit claimed

Lowell's top attorney said that the Middlesex County district attorney reviewed for several months the incident that prompted the suit and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"Their conclusion was that neither the city of Lowell nor in particular any members of their police department at any time engaged in any criminal or otherwise egregious activity in the course of performing their duties," said Christine O'Connor, city solicitor.

In February 2012, Santiago was driving to a local bar in Lowell, about 30 miles north of Boston, to meet an acquaintance for a drink when Detective Lafferty pulled him over and found cocaine tucked inside the gas cap of Santiago's car.

The suit charges that the acquaintance Santiago was meeting was a police informant who, working alone or with a partner, had planted the cocaine in the car with Lafferty's knowledge. After pulling Santiago over, Lafferty called for a police dog which found the drugs.

Santiago pleaded not guilty to a drug trafficking charge, which was dropped in March 2013 after the Middlesex County District Attorney launched a probe into the Lowell Police Department's use of informants, the suit contends.

That investigation came after one informant, who Santiago believed planted drugs on his car, approached the Massachusetts State Police to offer his services and "boasted about his skill and experience in planting evidence," the suit contends.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages.

A Massachusetts State Police spokesman declined to comment.

Lawsuits charging police or informants with planting evidence are rare, said Boston College Law School Professor Robert Bloom, because they are very hard to prove. The involvement of state police in this case increases the plaintiff's odds, he said.

"The element of proof is going to be on the state police," Bloom said. "They (plaintiffs) have a decent case, but otherwise this kind of situation would never see the light of day. The guy would have probably gone away or plea-bargained for lesser time."

Country prosecutors dropped charges or vacated convictions against 18 criminal defendants, including Santiago, as a result of the probe, according to local media reports.

Santiago's suit alleges violations of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process.

The suit comes on the heels of a scandal at a Massachusetts state crime lab in which a former chemist has been charged with faking drug test results -- confirming that evidence brought in by police was in fact illicit narcotics simply by looking at it, rather than through chemical testing.

That chemist, Annie Dookhan, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. More than 300 prisoners have been released pending new trials because Dookhan played a role in their conditions and a state review last month found that she had handled evidence in more than 40,000 cases in total.

(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)

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