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United States of America v. Larry Wright

Larry Wright was employed by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office (EBRSO) in the capacity of a jailer at the Parrish Prison.  The position called for Wright to be a sworn deputy sheriff.  However, he had no law enforcement powers outside the walls of the facilty in which he was assigned.  He had no authority to investigate any crime outside of the prison nor to make arrests.  His job was to control prisoners and security of the prison.

In 2006 while employed with EBRSO, Wright met Chris Cordasco who asked if Wright could have firearms charges dismissed.  Unknown to Wright, Cordasco had been arrested in 2005 for a firearms charge.  Wright told Cordasco that he could get the charge dropped for $ 5000.00.  Cordasco was an informant for the ATF. Cordasco contacted his handler and the sting was on.

Wright and Cordasco worked out a deal in which Wright would be paid $2500 and a quarter kilo of cocaine.  Wright was to make sure the charges were dropped.  During  this time Wright spoke with Detective Eric Jones about the deal including the cash and cocaine.   Jones told him not to pursue the information until it could be verified and then he would look at it.

Wright went ahead with the meeting and cash and was in the process of receiving the cocaine from Cordasco in a parking lot.   As in all sting operations Cordasco was wired as was his car. As Wright received the cocaine ATF came in and arrested Wright. They found Wright’s duty weapon on him and the $2500 he received from Cordasco.

Wright was charged with knowingly and intentionally attempting to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine,  possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

At trial Wright attempted to use the public authority defense which stated “is available when the defendant is engaged by a government official to participate or assist in covert activity,” United States v.

Spires, 79 F.3d 464, 466 n.2 (5th Cir. 1996) . Wright intended to call Sheriff Elmer Litchfield to bolster his claim.  The attorney general filed a motion to stop the testimony and the court agreed.  There was no relevancy that if Wright was authorized to conduct the investigation as it was clear he was not.

Wright requested that the jury receive instruction based on 21 U.S.C. 885(d) granting immunity if  he was “duly authorized”  official  “Lawfully engaged” in the enforcement of a matter of law.  The charge was as follows:

No criminal liability shall be imposed upon any duly authorized officer of any political subdivision of a State, who shall be lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law or municipal ordinance relating to controlled substances.

In each parish in Louisiana an elected sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the parish. The sheriff grants commissions to deputies which make them a duly authorized officer of the sheriff

And charges them with the duty of preserving the peace and apprehending public offenders 

Some of the duties of a law enforcement officer include making arrests and detecting crime for the enforcement of the laws of the State of Louisiana.

The district rejected Wright’s proposed instruction and charged the jury as follows:

Now, the defendant in this case claims that if he committed the acts charged in the indictment, he did so during the course and scope of his employment as a law enforcement officer, and pursuant to

Lawful authority. You must consider whether the defendant should be found not guilty because he was authorized by a qualified official of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office to participate, or to assist in the activity charged in the indictment. 

As a matter of law, I instruct you that every holder of a law enforcement commission is not necessarily authorized by virtue of that commission, to commit illegal acts in connection with investigations of criminal activity. 

If you find that the defendant engaged in the activity charged in the indictment, pursuant to the authority granted to him by a qualified official of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, then you must find him not guilty under the indictment. (US v. Wright 5th Circuit, case:09- 30763)

Wright was subsequently tried and convicted on counts four and five of the indictment knowingly and intentionally attempting to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  He was sentenced to sixty months to serve and three years of supervised release.

Wright appealed the conviction on the charge to the jury.  To prove so he had to show that it was unsubstantially correct statement of law, did not cover the charge overall and the court failed to instruct the jury did not allow him to give a valid defense.

Wright countered that he was free from prosecution under:

21 U.S.C. § 885(d). Section 885(d) provides:

Except as provided in sections 2234 and 2235 of title 18, no civil or criminal liability shall be imposed by virtue of this subchapter upon any duly authorized Federal officer lawfully engaged in the enforcement of this subchapter, or upon any duly authorized officer of any State, territory, political subdivision thereof, the District of Columbia, or any possession of the United States, who shall be lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law or municipal ordinance relating to controlled substances.

Wright argued that he was acting under the auspices of the EBRSO as a sworn deputy sheriff and he could enforce drug laws.  The only question was whether he was acting under the color of law given to him by an EBRSO official at the time.  The court gave the jury instructions if they believed he was he was entitled to a verdict of not guilty that they could find him so.

Under Section 885(D) there is no definition as to “duly authorized” officer enforcing drug laws.  The law is interpreted within a state in different was through state officials, policy, rules, and procedure that oversee the duties of officers.   The court recognized that state law set in action the responsibilities of peace officers. 

This was confirmed by United States v. Fuller, 162 F.d 256 (4th Cir 1998) in this case the court deemed immunity did not apply to a mayor involved in illicit drug activities because, his duties did not include the enforcement of drug laws.

 In United States v Reeves, 730 F.2d 1189 (8th cir.1984) judgments was affirmed against a sheriff who was distributing drugs outside his law enforcement duties.  The case was returned for trial because; a jury had to decide whether he was performing his duties or, selling dope.

In Wright’s case the issue was whether Wright had the authority to conduct a drug sting.  The court cited Louisiana law regarding the authority of peace officers:

Under Louisiana Revised Statute § 40:2402 governing the commission of peace officers:

(3)(a) “Peace officer” means any full-time employee of the state, a sheriff, or other public agency, whose permanent duties actually include the making of arrests, the performing of searches and seizures, or the execution of criminal warrants, and is responsible for the prevention or detection of crime or the enforcement of the penal, traffic, or highway laws of this state, but not including any elected or appointed head of a law enforcement department.

(b) “Peace officer” shall also include those sheriff’s deputies whose duties include the care, custody, and control of inmates.

The court went on to examine the duties of the Sheriff of the Parrish and his responsibilities as keeper of the jail:

The statutory provision discussing the “Sheriff keeper of [the] jail” provides:

Each sheriff shall be the keeper of the public jail of his parish, and shall by all lawful means preserve the peace and apprehend all disturbers thereof, and other public offenders.

Notwithstanding the court examined the Louisiana Statue on Prisons and Correctional Institutions:

LA. REV. STAT. ANN. § 15:704. This section appears in Title 15 of the Louisiana revised statutes (“Criminal Procedure”) in Chapter 7 (“Prisons and Correctional Institutions”), Part I (“Prisons and Prisoners in General”).

Viewing 15:704 defining correctional context and sheriff deputies, Wright had limited power to enforce the peace. He did not have the authority to obtain evidence and make arrests.  Wright was a deputy sheriff simply because he oversaw the health, wellbeing, and security of a Parrish prison.

Louisiana code assumes that there is a line between a deputy sheriff and a sworn deputy serving in the capacity of jailer which Wright was.  Deputy Sheriffs are law enforcement officers in the community performing law enforcement functions. Jailers’, such as Wright, enforcement powers are within the confines of the jail.  He did not have the authority to go under cover and violate federal law all on his own investigation.  Wright’s view of his authority was flawed.  He was simply a jailer with no business being in the parking lot taking a plea deal for $2500 in cash and cocaine.

The court ruled that the District court was right in advising that had Wright waited for approval from his superior officer he would have had qualified immunity.   Even if he subjectively believed he was doing the right thing he lacked the authority to do so.

Wright’s final argument was that he was not allowed to call witnesses that he had worked with on investigations before.  The court ruled that it was irrelevant as the question to the court was he authorized to have narcotics in his possession at the time.  Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence that supported the fact that he was going to have the charges against Cordasco dismissed.

The court ruled that the district court properly charged the jury.  The jury found that Wright was guilty as charged and Wright was sent to prison. 

Any law enforcement officer, no matter how wet behind the ears, or citizen in the community has watched enough television to know that you would not complete an action such as this without recording equipment and backup.  He was bright enough to know to go to a superior officer and inquire as to what steps to take. He was told not to do anything until he was cleared to.  To put this simply, you can’t take stupid out of stupid.  What is scary about all of this is how many are out there that we don’t know about. Think about that for a while.