Five criminal cases, including felony charges of drug possession, were dismissed this week in the criminal courthouse serving Vermont's most populous county. The announcements followed the arrest of a Colchester police officer suspected of stealing illegal drug evidence to feed his own addiction.
Notes scrawled on the bottom of dismissed charges obtained by New England Cable News read "case dismissed" and "evidence gone." Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said making the dismissals was frustrating.
"It's a difficult decision to make, but that said, it's the right decision to make, because we have to maintain the integrity of the system," Donovan said.
The five dismissed cases, involving heroin and marijuana, all relied on evidence handled by Detective Corporal Tyler Kinney of the Colchester Police Department. Kinney is facing federal charges after allegedly stealing drugs from the department's evidence storage room for his own use.
Kinney is now in a residential drug treatment program in Wallingford, Vermont. The criminal complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court in Burlington showed Kinney told an investigator he was a heroin addict.
Chief Jennifer Morrison of the Colchester Police Department acknowledged Thursday her department was expecting cases would be dropped because of the loss of evidence. Morrison declined NECN's request for an interview, explaining she simply can't talk to reporters in-depth until after a federal audit of her department's evidence handling facility and evidence accounting procedures is complete.
"I guarantee you the law enforcement community is utterly stunned by it," said Jerry O'Neil, a former federal prosecutor.
O'Neil said he expects the federal investigators are poring over all the police evidence in Colchester, not just the log books, but also doing chemical tests to see if drug amounts have been diluted or substituted.
"There is no doubt that there are people who are guilty of crimes who are going to be set free because of the circumstances surrounding this detective," O'Neil told NECN.
Raina Lowell, a recovering heroin addict who now advocates for more understanding about the problem of addiction, said the grip of opiates can lead all sorts of people to make bad choices.
"It will be the motivating factor behind your choices if you're struggling with that illness," Lowell said. "When you take drugs out of the equation, you have an entirely different human being."
Lowell acknowledged she does not know Tyler Kinney or details about the case aside from what has been reported in the media, but said the situation illustrates how far-reaching and impactful to communities opiate addiction can be.
"We like to think that it's just sort of the scum of society that's dealing with this issue, but it's really all of us," Lowell said.
State's Attorney Donovan said he'll likely have to toss even more cases because Kinney either can't serve as a witness in court or more evidence questions may arise. Still, Donovan said the preservation of fairness in the judicial system is all that matters.
"If we lose that, we've lost a lot more than a few pieces of evidence," he said.
NECN inquired with the Town of Colchester as to the current employment status of Tyler Kinney, but did not hear back from anyone before our Thursday deadline. Last month, Chief Morrison said Kinney was on unpaid administrative leave.