A defendant convicted in a drug dealing case will receive a new trial in part because of a comment made on Facebook by a Philadelphia police officer who testified against him.
The officer, Jason Seigafuse, posted a comment in 2011 about a colleague “lying” in court. Attorneys for defendant Antione Johnson, who was charged with dealing crack cocaine last year, uncovered it this summer through the Plain View Project, a database that compiled racist or violent social media posts authored by hundreds of city police.
Court watchers say it’s the first of what could be many cases impacted by the trove of social media that rocked police departments nationwide and led the Philadelphia Police Department to take steps to dismiss 15 officers.
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“This is part of the problem the district attorney is going to have if they keep trying to use these officers, moving forward,” said Troy Wilson, a Philadelphia-based defense attorney. “It’s a defense attorneys dream.”
Why an old Facebook post is disrupting a criminal conviction
Philadelphia police arrested Johnson in June of 2018 on charges of possession with intent to distribute. Police did not find drugs on his person, but when the case came to trial in 2019 Seigafuse testified that he saw Johnson give a large amount of crack cocaine to several associates who got into a vehicle and drove away.
Police allege that when they later stopped the vehicle, they saw a passenger attempting to eat the narcotics in question in an apparent effort to evade arrest. Ultimately, just .023 grams of cocaine rock were recovered from the vehicle as evidence.
Because the amount was small, Seigafuse’s testimony became important to prosecutor’s efforts to make a dealing charge stick. Johnson was found guilty on the basis of this testimony and was awaiting sentencing over the summer, when the Plain View Project database rocketed to national news.
Although Seigafuse does not appear to be among the 15 officers facing possible termination, at least one of his Facebook posts made it into the database. In August 2011, he posted a photograph of another officer testifying in courtroom with the caption “Lying at court as usual.”
A motion for extraordinary relief, filed in late July by Johnson’s attorney, Jonathan Altschuler, raised credibility issues over this and other Facebook posts made by the officer, and cited “inconsistencies” in Seigafuse’s prior testimony.
“Officer Seigafuse was the only officer to testify that Mr. Johnson engaged in any illegal activity,” reads the motion. “Officer Seigafuse made public postings on Facebook making light of fellow officers lying under oath, after illegally photographing them in court, along with his cavalierly sharing racist articles.”
After several months of deliberation, Judge Stephanie Sawyer granted the request, reversing Johnson’s conviction and teeing him up for a new trial in December.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office released a short statement when asked about the reversal of the conviction secured by his office.
“The defendant was tried and convicted based on evidence and testimony before the revelations found in the Plain View Project were made public. The District Attorney’s Office respects the independence of the judiciary in this matter,” said Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the district attorney.
Wilson said that in a case that hinges on officer testimony, the Facebook post might be enough to exonerate Johnson.
“If there is even the hint of impropriety then the judge is well within her right to rule the way that she did,” Wilson said. “His posts are, at a minimum, very troubling especially when, as in the present case, the officer’s credibility was a key to the commonwealth obtaining a conviction in this matter.”
Wilson said that there were likely to be many more motions to come down the road, as more defense attorneys dig through the Plain View Project’s records.
“The officer is going to have the same issues with credibility with every single arrest he makes,” the defense attorney said. “Any self-respecting defense attorney will be looking at the Facebook stuff for their own cases, going forward.”
A Police Department spokesman said Seigafuse was not authorized to comment on the matter and did not offer further details about the case.
“The Police Department is always concerned about on-duty and off-duty actions by our members that impact our ability to carry out our core mission,” said PPD spokesperson Lt. Sekou Kinebrew.
Altschuler declined a request to comment for this story.