On February 14, 1989, members of the Rochester Police Department’s Highway Interdiction Team, a federally-funded narcotics unit, arrested 27-year-old Maurice James and charged him with selling drugs to an undercover officer.
Officer Scott Harloff said he recovered a marked $20 bill from James that undercover officer Lloyd Cuyler had used to purchase drugs from James.
James went on trial in Monroe County Superior Court in April 1990. Harloff testified that he put his initials on the $20 bill and gave it to Cuyler to purchase drugs. After the transaction, Harloff, Cuyler and other HIT team members went into a home on Hayward Avenue in Rochester and confronted James. Harloff said he handcuffed James and found the marked bill in James’ pants pocket. He denied that James resisted or that any officers mistreated James.
Cuyler said he had purchased drugs from James twice before and that after this purchase, James went into the house and that he could see him through a window in the front door. He said that when the officers went inside, he saw Harloff take the bill from James’ pocket. He said that only seconds passed between the sale and when police entered the home and arrested James.
James testified in his own defense and gave a vastly different account. James denied selling drugs to Cuyler on two previous occasions. He said that on the day of his arrest, another man was in the house and left through a rear door just moments before police entered. He said that when he denied selling drugs, officers beat him. James said Harloff yanked a cord from a radio, stripped the wires bare, then plugged the cord into a wall socket and began sparking the wires while threatening to shock or “electrocute” James unless he handed over the marked bill.
James said that Harloff took $21 from his wallet and denied it was from a drug sale. The defense also presented a photograph showing that the door on the house was boarded up and no one could see into the home as Cuyler had testified.
On April 13, 1990, a jury convicted James of selling narcotics and he was sentenced to a prison term of 18 months to three years.
In August 1991, Harloff and several other police officers were indicted by a federal grand jury on a wide array of charges that alleged they had beaten suspects, planted drugs, and stolen money from arrestees.
In November 1991, James filed a motion to vacate his conviction, alleging that he had been framed and beaten and threatened with the live wires by Harloff and other HIT officers.
In 1992, after officer William Morris, one of the officers involved in James’ arrest, pled guilty in federal court to participating in an assault on James, a more detailed petition was filed by James’ attorney, Brian Shiffrin.
The petition was accompanied by sworn affidavits from FBI agents that detailed how Morris had admitted that James was beaten and threatened with the electrical cord. The agents said Morris told them that when the officers arrested James, they could not find the marked $20 bill. Harloff then turned away from James, marked another $20 bill, palmed it and reached into James’ pocket so that he could feign discovering the original marked bill.
Morris told the agents he did not believe that Cuyler, the officer who had made the undercover drug purchase, was aware of the switch. Morris also said that the house was “trashed” by the officers and that James had been “pounded by almost everybody.”
The petition also pointed out that Cuyler’s reports of the two previous drug transactions listed a physical description of the drug seller that did not fit James’ description. The petition claimed that based on the disparities in the descriptions, James was not involved in the first two sales.
In May 1992, the Monroe County District Attorney’s office joined in the motion to vacate the conviction. Superior Court Judge John Doyle granted the motion, the charges were dismissed and James was released.
In June 1993, Harloff and four other police officers were acquitted by a federal jury of corruption charges. In August 1993, the City of Rochester agreed to pay $625,000 to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit brought by James.
– Maurice Possley