Judge criticizes deal to drop charges against former Pulaski sheriff's deputy

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 9, 2013 

A federal judge has strongly criticized prosecutors over a deal to drop charges against a former Pulaski County sheriff's deputy accused of assaulting people.

U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves said the agreement to dismiss two serious charges against the former officer will not deter others from similar crimes.

"In summary, this court is clearly troubled with the manner in which this case has been handled by the attorneys representing the United States," Reeves wrote in his decision.

The case involved Steve Molen, who became a deputy in 2005. Federal grand juries charged Molen with violating the civil rights of three people by using excessive force against them during arrests.

Molen was charged with hitting or kicking the three after they had been handcuffed.

Federal prosecutors also had information on more than 50 other cases between October 2005 and May 2012 in which Molen used some level of force against people, and they wanted to present evidence on some of those cases to show a pattern of conduct, according to a court document.

Reeves said that there was no indication that the sheriff's office took any internal action to correct or punish Molen's conduct.

Other police officers witnessed some of the alleged assaults and could have been called to testify. In at least one case described in court documents, prosecutors had access to a videotape from a camera in a police cruiser of the alleged assault.

Defense attorneys said in court documents that all the arrests Molen made were legitimate, and any force he used was based on the conduct of the other person.

Molen could have faced up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

However, prosecutors and defense attorneys worked out a deal in which Molen pleaded guilty Dec. 3 to one felony charge in return for a sentence of three years probation, including six months of home confinement.

Molen resigned after agreeing to plead guilty.

The case was unusual because Molen was charged in the federal court's Western District of Kentucky for a case that involved a pursuit into Russell County, and in the federal court's Eastern District for two cases in Pulaski County.

Molen's attorneys said he had substantive defenses in the two Pulaski County cases. The case in Russell County was more problematic for him, defense attorneys acknowledged.

Molen pleaded guilty in the Russell County case, but the deal required prosecutors in the Eastern District to seek dismissal of the charges against him from Pulaski County.

Prosecutors said in a court motion that the deal protected the public because Molen can't work as a police officer anymore, and that the deal avoided the need to expend more resources prosecuting the case.

The settlement also spared victims the need to testify about embarrassing matters, prosecutors said.

The conviction showed the government's commitment to protecting civil rights and will deter other officers from engaging in misconduct, prosecutors said in the motion.

Prosecutors said two of the three victims approved the plea deal, but that the third said he thought Molen deserved prison time.

However, that man did not attend the plea hearing to give a statement, prosecutors said.

Reeves said that wasn't surprising.

"Under the circumstances, why would he bother?" Reeves asked. "The United States has made it clear that it is finished with this case."

Reeves rejected the reasons given by prosecutors for seeking dismissal of the two charges against Molen, and he said in his Dec. 5 decision that he came very close to ruling that the move was contrary to the public's interest.

Reeves questioned whether the government had considered the message sent by the plea deal to other police who might be inclined to render "rough justice," and whether it would cause other deputies to think twice before abusing a detainee.

The deal does not demonstrate that the government is committed to protecting citizens' civil rights, Reeves said.

Rather, it shows that the government is "willing to negotiate a deal very favorable to a defendant accused of several very serious offenses," and it can't be said that the outcome will deter illegal conduct, Reeves said.

Reeves said the assertion that the plea deal would save government resources was "weak at best."

Reeves approved the motion to dismiss the charges despite his concerns.

Federal criminal rules limited his discretion, Reeves said; he could reject prosecutors' request to dismiss the charges only if the deal was made in bad faith or was manifestly against the public interest.

However, he said, the government "should not be proud of its actions."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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