Almost a year after the January 2020 traffic stop that landed Clarence Green in jail on a gun possession charge, federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge asked a judge to drop the indictment — but offered little explanation of their decision.
U.S. Attorney Brandon Fremin's office said only that it scrapped the case after "re-evaluating the evidence." By then, Green had spent five months in jail.
But a federal judge refused to let it slide so quietly after viewing video of the traffic stop and subsequent search of a nearby apartment — both led by a veteran Baton Rouge Police Department patrolman.
In a case that tested the limits of sound police work and prosecutorial discretion, Chief District Judge Brian Jackson lambasted Green's arrest and prosecution as "emblematic of precisely the type of 'foul' blows universally condemned by our jurisprudence."
Jackson found police had shown a "serious and wanton disregard" for Green's rights, "first by initiating a traffic stop on the thinnest of pretext, and then by haphazardly invading Defendant’s home (weapons drawn) to conduct an unjustified, warrantless search."
The search was so bad, Jackson wrote, that the officers could potentially be charged with criminal trespassing.
The case against Green raises serious questions about what happens when, as Jackson found, proactive policing crosses a line and cops overstep their authority.
The Baton Rouge Police Department opened an internal investigation Dec. 31, two days after the judge's ruling, according to a department spokesman who declined to offer details about the ongoing investigation. Jackson included his assessment of the case in a long footnote to his order dismissing the charge.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment for this story.
Green was indicted last summer on a count of being a felon in possession of a firearm following the Jan. 1, 2020, stop in the Brookstown area, a neighborhood off Airline Highway in north Baton Rouge. Green was a passenger riding in the back seat of an SUV with his younger brother, a juvenile.
Baton Rouge police found a loaded handgun concealed in Green's pants and boxes of ammunition in the car.
Such gun possession cases often land in federal court, in part because federal laws can allow for longer sentences.
Sgt. Ken Camallo wrote in his police report that he conducted "an investigatory stop … based on suspicious driving in a high crime area." The vehicle's driver had signaled to turn in the officer's direction, then drove the other way. Camallo was in the neighborhood looking for an alleged shoplifter and had seen the vehicle earlier at a known drug house, he said.
It was enough for a federal grand jury to return the indictment against Green. But Jackson ripped into Camallo's rationale for the traffic stop as the officer testified at a November hearing on a motion by Green's attorneys to suppress the evidence from the search.
Citing the officer's conflicting accounts about the circumstances leading up to the traffic stop, Jackson found Camallo's testimony "troubling at best." The judge also noted that Camallo had submitted several supplemental police reports, including more details and clarifications, following meetings with prosecutors months after Green's arrest. Prosecutors argued that's not unusual.
After the traffic stop, officers searched Green's brother and found marijuana. Camallo said he later went to the apartment to turn the boy over to his mother with a summons for possession of marijuana. But Camallo's bodycam video shows him pushing open the apartment door and walking inside with another officer. Camallo then confronts the mother and pressures her to let him search an upstairs room.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, whose office prosecutes cases in state court, said he is reviewing the case to see whether Camallo should be considered untruthful — a fact prosecutors would have to disclose to defense attorneys. Moore keeps what's known as a "Brady list" of officers whose credibility has been challenged.
Camallo testified during the November hearing that he had served more than 22 years with BRPD, with no blemishes on his disciplinary record. He reported having testified in court hundreds of times.
But this wasn't the first time federal prosecutors were forced to scrap a gun prosecution that involved a warrantless search led by Camallo.
In 2017, District Judge James Brady threw out all of the evidence from what he deemed an illegal search of a FEMA trailer in which police turned up an assault rifle with a magazine and scope, makeshift explosives and marijuana. Brady found no evidence to justify what Camallo had described as a "protective sweep," and prosecutors quickly dropped the case against defendant Jordan Sergent.
Camallo also is named along with a handful of other Baton Rouge police officers in a federal suit accusing them of civil rights violations related to a July 2016 protest over the police killing of Alton Sterling. Protester Max Geller alleges that Camallo and other cops assaulted him repeatedly and arrested him falsely. That lawsuit is pending.
When asked to describe the events leading up to the Brookstown traffic stop and Green's subsequent arrest, Camallo said he was patrolling the area after reports of someone stealing merchandise from a nearby electronics store. He said he noticed a Toyota 4Runner parked outside a "known drug house" and some time later watched the same vehicle use its left blinker before making an abrupt right onto Airline Highway. Camallo said it appeared the driver was trying to evade the police. He also said there was a child sitting in the front passenger's lap.
Camallo made a U-turn and followed the 4Runner before pulling over the driver.
The judge, however, cast doubt on Camallo's claim that the driver's actions were suspicious, while also questioning why so many officers — four in addition to Camallo — showed up as backup.
"So they had nothing else to do on New Year's Day but to all roll up on a traffic stop for a driver who didn't use her blinker?" the judge asked. Camallo replied that the officers often seek to support each other in numbers, "especially with assaults on law enforcement getting higher."
Once the vehicle pulled over, Camallo said, he noticed an overwhelming smell of marijuana, which he said gave him legal justification to search the vehicle. After questioning the driver about where she was headed, Camallo handcuffed the passengers, and the officers searched the 4Runner. The search yielded smoked marijuana in the ashtray and two boxes of ammunition.
The officers then frisked Green and his juvenile brother, finding a gun in Green's pants and a bag of marijuana in his brother's underwear, Camallo testified.
What happened next, when Camallo and another officer went to the apartment where Green and his family lived, left the judge miffed.
No one answered the door when the officers arrived at the apartment. They waited outside for several minutes, then walked inside, bodycam footage shows.
The video recording had been muted during this time. Camallo told the judge that was in accordance with BRPD policy, which allows officers to mute conversations with other officers in certain circumstances.
The footage shows Camallo walking through the apartment with his gun drawn, peering inside closets using a light attached to his weapon. After less than a minute, a woman appears from a back room and starts talking to the officers.
The recording remains muted and the conversation isn't audible over much of the interaction. Camallo testified that he meant to unmute his body camera sooner. When it finally comes on, he is telling the woman that he wants to search the room where Green and his brother sleep to "make sure they didn't have anything else that could get them in trouble later."
She first declines to consent to the search but Camallo persists and the woman relents, leading him up the stairs while insisting the officer would find nothing.
He found a rifle and a shotgun inside the room, according to police reports. The findings of that search were mentioned in Green's arrest report, but prosecutors never charged him or anyone else for the weapons found there.
While the judge expressed clear disapproval of the police tactics used, he ultimately commended prosecutors for asking to toss the charge, while noting that Green had spent months behind bars awaiting that decision.
"As such, it is appropriate to remind the Government — and its representative, the United States Attorney — of its paramount obligation to seek and serve justice, not convictions," Jackson wrote.
Green and his mother filed a federal civil rights lawsuit this month over the search, which their attorney described as both unconstitutional and "exceedingly dangerous."
"We have seen tragedies across the country when police officers execute no-knock searches and other similar searches," said the attorney, Thomas Frampton, a University of Virginia law professor. "When you come into a private home with guns drawn illegally, it invites violence."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information about the civil suit.