He was known as a go-getter in the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, an aggressive cop who made a lot of arrests, especially for DWI cases. He was named deputy of the year in 2016 in part because of his work getting drunks off the streets.
But Ricky Steinert resigned from the Sheriff’s Office last year under the cloud of an internal affairs investigation into a drunken-driving arrest he made that year. A cellphone video showed motorist Ryan Heyd had performed well on a field sobriety test, but Steinert’s arrest report failed the truth test.
Now, the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office is reviewing several dozen cases in which Steinert’s testimony was involved. The office has already dropped three cases and set aside a conviction, and at least one pending prosecution — a felony drug case — might be in jeopardy, District Attorney Warren Montgomery has said.
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So far, the north shore's famously tough criminal justice apparatus has gone easy on a deputy caught lying. St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith said he doesn't believe a crime was committed when Steinert put false information in an arrest report.
Montgomery said he will look into the matter following questions raised by The Advocate and WWL-TV.
Smith said he believes the 41-year-old deputy was a good cop. In his 11 years on the force, Steinert racked up many commendations, and Smith chose him to be one of the faces of the agency when the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office was featured on the television show “Live PD” last year. He arrested 117 people since 2015, records show.
But at least one of those arrests was fatally flawed. According to the internal affairs report, Steinert "admitted he had fabricated his arrest report by coping (sic) and pasting the probable cause from a previous DUI offense." The report described Heyd as swaying, losing his balance and losing count during the field sobriety test.
Smith said Steinert resigned before even going in for an interview about the arrest, filling out the paperwork as soon as he heard that he was wanted for an internal affairs meeting. The internal affairs report says that he told those interviewing him he intended to resign. He did so on May 11.
Last week, Steinert, who is living in Natchitoches, told The Advocate and WWL-TV that he had no knowledge of an internal affairs investigation. He gave a far different account of his departure, saying he left to take a better-paying job.
But emails between the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office make clear that there was an investigation and that it showed Steinert had not been truthful in his report on Heyd's arrest.
For Heyd, the stakes couldn't have been higher. A member of the National Guard, the combat veteran, then 30, already had a DWI conviction on his record. A second one would mean losing his commission.
That's likely what would have happened if a friend had not videotaped the encounter, providing compelling evidence that strongly contradicted the deputy's account.
Officer vs. driver
DWI misdemeanor cases generally come down to the arresting officer's word against that of the driver, according to Jack Hoffstadt, a former assistant district attorney who prosecuted such cases and now does DWI defense work. That's especially true when a driver refuses to take a breath test, as Heyd did.
Hoffstadt said he never lost a DWI case in many years as a prosecutor, and he estimated that more than 90 percent of defendants wind up pleading guilty.
John Lindner, the chief public defender for St. Tammany Parish, agreed that trials are rare. "Most people don't go to trial; most people just plead because it's hard," he said.
Hoffstadt, who is certified in field sobriety testing, also does training for attorneys on the three tests involved: walk and turn, one-leg stand and horizontal gaze nystagmus, which tests for involuntary jerking of the eyes, a sign of inebriation.
Done correctly, Hoffstadt said, the tests are extremely accurate in gauging impairment.
In viewing the video of Heyd's test at the request of The Advocate and WWL, however, Hoffstadt said he saw nothing that indicated impairment.
Prosecutors, who received a copy of the tape from Heyd's attorney, were apparently baffled as well. The District Attorney's Office contacted the Sheriff's Office about the stark contradictions between the video and Steinert's report. Among other things, the report said that Heyd lost his balance from the starting position three times before beginning a walk-and-turn test and missed four steps in all, stepping off the line.
But the video shows him walking heel to toe, arms at his sides, without wobbling.
Heyd declined to be interviewed. But his lawyer, Michael Bradley, said that prosecutors are usually able to rely on the testimony of police officers because the assumption is that they are not going to fabricate things. He said he was shocked by how detailed the untrue arrest report was.
"It's very clear that what this guy is saying in the report just flat-out didn't happen," Bradley said. "I understand lying to get somebody out of trouble. I don't understand lying to get somebody in trouble."
While it's not clear what motivated Steinert to lie, he was working an overtime shift paid for with a grant from the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission aimed at getting drunken drivers off the road. Some similar overtime programs, such as Local Agency Compensated Enforcement, have been criticized for operating under an informal quota system.
In Heyd's case, the District Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute, dropping the case on May 26. But by then, and before the incriminating video surfaced, another driver who was stopped by Steinert the same month as Heyd had already been convicted of DWI.
Steinert was the lone witness for the prosecution in that case.
The language in the arrest report Steinert wrote about Darren McFarland, 53, was identical in key passages to that of the report on Heyd. For instance, both reports said the arrested subjects had to be told four times not to move their heads during the eye test.
McFarland had a clean record, and like Heyd, he decided to fight the charge. He blew 0.063 on the breathalyzer, below the level where one is presumed intoxicated. McFarland's lawyer, Michael Moore, said his client suffers from gout, which he felt explained what Steinert described in a police report as poor performance on one field sobriety test.
But gout couldn't excuse his alleged poor performance on the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, Moore said, and Judge August Hand found McFarland guilty on April 28, 2017.
Moore soon learned from Heyd's attorney that there was a video showing Steinert lied about a DWI. The defense attorney went to the district attorney to say that information should have been disclosed to his client under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to tell defense attorneys if they have evidence that could call a police officer's testimony into question. Moore said he would file a Brady motion.
Instead, the District Attorney's Office vacated the conviction then dismissed the case, Moore said.
Moore's boss, Lindner, said it's rare for a conviction to be vacated. But he said he doesn't believe the district attorney's work cleaning up the mess is done.
"In my opinion as the chief public defender, at this point, the DA has an obligation under Brady ... to disclose to defense counsel what happened to Steinert in whatever case he handled, DWI or any other," Lindner said.
Steinert arrested at least 117 people since 2015. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office does not have cameras in its vehicles or body cameras on deputies.
Without a video like the one Heyd's friend took, it's the word of the officer against the defendant, Lindner said. "If they’re not being honest, we’ve got a problem."
Montgomery said his staff is looking at "several dozen" cases involving Steinert, including some that haven't been prosecuted yet. That doesn't mean the office will drop all cases where Steinert is involved, he said. Instead, he said, the decision will be made on a case-by-case basis and will depend on whether guilt can be proved some other way.
It's unclear whether Steinert might face prosecution. While Smith said he does not believe the deputy broke the law, ethics expert Dane Ciolino sees a clear violation.
"If a police officer is knowingly and purposefully filing false police reports, that certainly is a crime under Louisiana law. And that is police misconduct of the highest order," he said.
Ciolino said the Sheriff's Office should open an investigation looking at all of Steinert's prior reports, pulling a number of DWI arrests to see if there was a wholesale cutting, pasting and lifting of allegations from one report to another. That information should be given to the district attorney, he said.
The identical language about the nystagmus test that appears in the reports on Heyd and McFarland also shows up in another Steinert arrest report: that of Jeremiah Jones, who was arrested by the deputy in April 2016. That case has been dropped by the district attorney as well.
Ciolino said it's not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to ask an independent investigator to conduct such a review. "That would be appropriate here," he said.
But Smith said he didn't believe that was necessary. "I didn't see it as a criminal act," Smith said. "I'm the hiring and firing authority as the sheriff. I make those decisions to whether we open up an internal investigation."
The internal affairs report concludes by saying, "This case is considered closed."
Ciolino said the sheriff should not "make the unilateral decision that this should go no further.
"These are serious allegations of misconduct, and perhaps, criminal conduct. They need to be fully investigated in an impartial manner and then the results of that investigation need to be given to the DA to make the determination if charges are appropriate."
Under state law, filing false public records is punishable by up to five years in prison. It's defined in part as filing with any public office any document containing a false statement — with knowledge that it's false.
Smith said he didn't believe Steinert should have been arrested because there was no evidence he was acting for self-gain, although the statute does not require such a finding. But he called the deputy's actions very dishonest. "No one, especially me, wants bad deputies on the force," he said.
Montgomery said the Sheriff's Office should look into the matter, and his office will do so.
“We are reviewing open cases that involve Officer Steinert as a witness to determine if we can proceed with the prosecution of those matters," he said. "Separate from that review, if we determine that a crime has been committed, we will take appropriate action. No one is above the law.”
When an officer lies, Montgomery said, it's a major problem for the criminal justice system. "There's plenty of crime out there," he said. "We don't need to make crime up."