A Mountlake Terrace police sergeant who was fired in part for alleged dishonesty has gotten his job back and an $812,500 settlement from his department, Snohomish County and the city of Lynnwood.
Jonathan Wender's battle to clear his name centered on allegations that police internal investigators and the prosecutor's office targeted him unfairly because of his outspoken views in favor of limited decriminalization of marijuana and reforms in the nation's war on drugs.
"I think that those of us on the front lines have an obligation to speak out," said Wender, 42, who now is on a two-year paid leave and teaching at the University of Washington. "I have devoted most of my professional life to protecting constitutional rights of citizens. Rights are violated when there is a chilling of free speech, which I believe was the case here."
Wender's case illustrates a wider issue reported last year by the Seattle P-I -- abuse and unequal enforcement by police departments of requirements that police officers be truthful. Internal disciplinary records indicate some officers are fired for dishonesty, some are reprimanded and some are accused of lying so that departments can fire them.
Wender alleged that he falls in the latter category. Court records show he uncovered evidence to support his claim.
Wender joined the department out of college in 1990, and while working full time obtained a Ph.D. in criminology from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Though he stated in court he made more drug arrests than other Mountlake Terrace patrol sergeants, Wender came to believe the nation was wasting police resources jailing addicts, while failing to curb drug traffickers and to solve the underlying problems leading to drug use, including unstable families.
He joined a well-known organization -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- and encouraged exploration of decriminalization of marijuana. He was quoted in a weekly newspaper on his views.
He said some fellow officers, including Lynnwood officers who were part of a drug task force, objected to his views and targeted him. Though he admitted smoking pot once -- when he was 15 years old -- he said he is not pro-drug.
Police and prosecutors began investigating Wender after a woman called 911 one night in June 2005 to say she saw a single marijuana plant at her ex-husband's house when she picked up their daughter.
She said she didn't want to get her ex in trouble, she just wanted to make a record of it because of custody issues, according to court records. Wender called the man and told him to obey the law or risk losing visitation rights. The woman later found a small pot-growing operation inside her ex-husband's house. Wender was unaware of that, or he said he would have acted differently.
Lynnwood police officers in the drug task force -- who were aware of Wender's views on marijuana -- called for a full-scale criminal investigation of Wender as a result of that case.
That went nowhere and the prosecutor declined to pursue charges. Then the Mountlake Terrace department opened an internal investigation. During that investigation, investigators claimed to the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office that Wender had made false statements in regards to a side issue. That led the prosecutor to open a "Brady" investigation on Wender, and to issue a "Brady letter," a move that is often fatal to a police officer's career.
Brady v. Maryland is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to inform criminal defendants of any evidence that they might use to defend themselves. That includes information whether a police officer who accused them of a crime has ever lied in an official proceeding.
A "Brady letter" is a note in prosecutor's files about any officer that has lied. "Brady" officers are often terminated because they become ineffective as witnesses in criminal trials. Wender was terminated on Oct. 19, 2005. He filed a lawsuit two years later.
The case investigators made against Wender had serious flaws. He passed a polygraph test, and the evidence that he misled anyone was shaky. And at least one other Mountlake Terrace officer was simply reprimanded in 2000 when the prosecutor's office created a Brady file on him for statements he made during an investigation of a vehicle ramming. Moreover, Wender had a reputation in the department for honesty.
"I never questioned his honesty," said Mountlake Terrace Assistant Chief Mark Connor, adding that he was a "good guy to work with."
Connor still believes Wender violated policy when he let the man off regarding the one pot plant, but that violation wouldn't have resulted in termination. Connor wasn't named in the lawsuit.
Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Held said his department did not want to continue spending money on the case, and risk losing it. He said prosecutors would be put in an untenable position if they were held liable for obeying the Brady ruling.
Wender won't get all the money at once. In the settlement, he was reinstated as a sergeant and placed on paid leave, which will continue through Nov. 10, 2010, when he will resign. He got back pay, and about half the settlement money went to reinstating his pension fund.
"He is walking away with his reputation restored," said his attorney Andrea Brenneke.
Though he is now teaching criminal justice at the university, he said he might go back to law enforcement: "I miss it."
P-I reporter Eric Nalder can be reached at 206-448-8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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