S.F. Officer's Testimony Allowed to Stand -- Despite Episode of Misconduct, Dishonesty

San Francisco Police Department insignia on patrol car.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A Superior Court judge has chastised the San Francisco district attorney's office for withholding "damning" information about a key police witness in a criminal case.

That witness, a veteran San Francisco Police Department officer and high-ranking member of the city's police union, was once disciplined for misconduct and dishonest testimony and apparently lied about that history during a recent preliminary hearing.

Judge Ross Moody told prosecutors last Friday he was troubled by their failure to inform attorneys for a defendant facing trial on firearms charges about Officer James Trail's history.

But Moody also ruled that despite that history, Trail's testimony in a December preliminary hearing was enough to hold the defendant for trial.

Moody's ruling came despite evidence that Trail, a veteran of Ingleside Station and member of the Police Officers' Association board of directors, was untruthful about that misconduct during the preliminary hearing.

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"What would ever be enough to overcome an officer’s testimony?" Deputy San Francisco Public Defender Chesa Boudin asked Moody after he made his ruling.

Boudin, defending 20-year-old Quinntez Woodson in the firearms case, also raised questions about Trail's credibility at the December preliminary hearing. But because of the apparent 14-year failure by the Police Department to notify defense attorneys about a 2004 misconduct episode involving Trail, he didn't know the full scope of the officer's history.

The department appears to have omitted Trail from a non-public list of officers with records of misconduct that could result in challenges to their credibility in court.

Trail was left off the list despite an official finding that he lied in a police report and to investigators about shooting a suspect in 2004. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors have a legal duty to disclose that kind of information to defense attorneys under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland. But that obligation conflicts with a host of California state laws that keep peace officer personnel files so secret that even district attorneys don't have access to them.

But Trail's history was known to higher-ups in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, including DA George Gascón, before the officer testified in the Woodson case in December. As police chief, Gascón participated in a probe of Trail's misconduct case.

2004 Excelsior District Shooting

On April 27, 2004, Officer Trail and his partner at the time, Officer Mike Androvich, were patrolling the Sunnydale housing project when they saw a black Chevrolet Monte Carlo believed to be connected to a recent shooting in the neighborhood, according to a transcript of Trail's later testimony.

He said he and his partner both recognized the driver, then 37-year-old Robert Lamar Edwards, whom they knew by a different name.

"I said to my partner, who also said to me, 'It's Bobby T.,'" Trail testified at a hearing to revoke Edwards' probation six months later.

Ana Gonzalez, now head of the district attorney's criminal division, was the prosecutor on the case.

Trail said he already knew Edwards from when the defendant had "shot up a liquor store" and that he had "chased the suspect over fences" and "through back yards."

What happened next is in question. Trail said Edwards rolled through a stop sign at Sunnydale Avenue and Schwerin Street.

Officer Androvich, who was driving, turned the squad car around and pulled up behind Edwards, who stopped. The officers walked up on either side of Edwards' vehicle with their guns drawn.

Trail testified that he and his partner both yelled at Edwards to turn his car off. As Trail looked in the passenger-side window, he said he saw what looked like a heavy object covered up by a T-shirt in Edward's lap.

"I thought it was a gun," Trail testified. When Edwards hesitated to put his hands out the driver's side window, the officer said, he became concerned.

"I'm afraid he's going to shoot my partner," Trail said. So he opened the front passenger door and reached in, attempting "to grab the gun."

The officer said Edwards threw the car into reverse, pinning him against the opened car door. Then, he testified, Edwards launched the car forward, with Trail's body mostly outside the car as he held on to the roof with his left hand and the open passenger door with his gun hand.

"I'm holding on for my life," Trail said. But he couldn't keep up with the car and began to fall. Shooting Edwards, he said, "was my only resort."

An excerpt from an Oct. 21, 2004 probation revocation hearing for Robert Edwards, in which defense attorney Christopher Martin questions SFPD Officer John Trail.
An excerpt from an Oct. 21, 2004 probation revocation hearing for Robert Edwards, in which defense attorney Christopher Martin questions SFPD Officer John Trail.

After letting go of the window to fire a shot, Trail testified that he fell and was dragged by the car, injuring his arm. And Edwards drove away.

Edwards was later arrested -- he appears to have turned himself in and was seeking medical attention for a gunshot wound. He faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon, battery against a peace officer and hit and run.

But Edwards' defense attorney, Christopher Martin, had another witness -- a telephone-line worker who was parked nearby and saw something completely different.

After Trail finished testifying, Martin called Neil White to the stand.

A Different Story

According to the court transcript, White told the court he was working at the corner of Schwerin Street and Sunnydale Avenue and noticed a black-and-white SFPD squad car pull alongside Edwards' car in a crosswalk, with the vehicles facing opposite directions.

"They were facing each other," White said, "[It] looked like they were talking."

Edwards pulled over on his own, White testified, and the squad car made a U-turn and pulled up behind him.

Both officers approached the car with their guns drawn, held low and behind the back of their legs, White said. As Trail opened the passenger-side door, White testified, a plume of exhaust belched from the car.

"Whether the car was being started or accelerating, I don't know," White said. "As that happened, he [Trail] opened up the car door and pulled his gun in the car and fired a shot."

An excerpt from an Oct. 21, 2004 probation revocation hearing for Robert Edwards, in which defense attorney Christopher Martin questions witness Neil White.
An excerpt from an Oct. 21, 2004 probation revocation hearing for Robert Edwards, in which defense attorney Christopher Martin questions witness Neil White.

White said the car never backed up, but it did then accelerate forward for 20 or 30 feet, then slowed to almost a stop.

At that point, Trail, uninjured, caught up to Edwards' car on foot and grabbed the still-open passenger side door.

"[It] looked like he grabbed a hold of the car door, spun his pistol around inside the car; looked like he was going to fire a second shot," White testified. The car sped up again, "and with the officer's hand on the door, it looked to -- that it drug him to the ground, and he took a tumble on the ground after that."

At the end of that October 2004 hearing, Edwards stayed out of jail and Trail was facing discipline and a criminal investigation for improperly firing his gun, filing an inaccurate police report and misrepresenting the truth.

Drawn-Out Discipline, and an Accidental Discovery

It took the Police Department and the city's Police Commission six years to weigh Trail's case.

Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin said in court last Friday that a criminal investigation into Trail's actions led by former District Attorney Kamala Harris stretched into mid-2005. Boudin said Ana Gonzalez took part in that investigation. The DA's office eventually declined to pursue charges against Trail.

The Police Department named Trail and his partner, Androvich, officers of the month in July 2005 for "strength of character, compassion, and commitment to the community" while the Office of Citizen Complaints was still investigating Trail for potential misconduct.

In 2009, Trail was awarded the Police Department's Silver Medal of Valor for his role in an incident shortly after he shot Edwards in which officers shot and killed a homicide suspect. At the time of the award, the department's misconduct charges were still pending.

A San Francisco Police Commission document showing charges of misconduct against SFPD Officer James Trail in late 2010.

Trail eventually admitted to improperly firing his weapon in late 2010, according to Police Commission disciplinary records and multiple sources familiar with the outcome. Investigators' findings that he misrepresented the truth and filed an inaccurate police report were dropped as a result of a sort of plea bargain called a stipulated agreement.

Nevertheless, those findings about dishonesty are still considered information that should be turned over to the defense under Brady v. Maryland, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled. But until last month, February of this year, they never have been.

Generally, records of police officer misconduct and disciplinary proceedings are kept almost entirely secret. Boudin said he believes Trail's name was accidentally associated with an internal affairs case number on a Jan. 4, 2006, Police Commission agenda.

But for the defense's accidental discovery, "We would have gone to trial and it would have been my client’s word against Officer Trail’s, and nobody ever would have known that he had a history of filing false police reports and lying," Boudin said.

"When you allow the Police Department to be its own guardian, to check and make its own independent decisions without any external review about which officers have Brady material, you end up with situations like this, where an officer with a detailed track record -- many hundreds of pages documenting his misconduct -- is somehow accidentally left off the Brady list for 14 years," Boudin said.

A Chase, and a Dropped Gun

At around noon on Aug. 3 2017, Trail and his partner, Officer Brian Hopkins, started to pull an otherwise unidentified red car over on Geneva Avenue after the driver allegedly drove around a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

A photograph from the case against Quinntez Woodson showing SFPD Officer James Trail reaching for a gun on the sidewalk.
A photograph from the case against Quinntez Woodson showing SFPD Officer James Trail reaching for a gun on the sidewalk.

The car started to pull over, but then Woodson, a passenger in the vehicle, allegedly jumped out and started running. The officers didn't chase the car and didn't note its license plate number.

Trail pursued on foot while Hopkins drove, the officers said in police reports. Neither officer turned on his body camera.

Trail said in a police report that as he ran behind Woodson, he saw him throw a heavy object wrapped in a red bandanna, and the officer heard what he described as a loud thud.

The officer said he found a red bandanna and 9mm handgun on the sidewalk and stayed with them while Hopkins caught up to and arrested Woodson. He was charged with three felonies for illegal possession of a firearm -- in part because he was found to have committed a 2012 residential robbery, when he was a juvenile.

Trail's testimony was the only prosecution evidence in the preliminary hearing, but Woodson's attorney, Chesa Boudin, said he was never notified about the misconduct in the officer's past.

During that hearing, Boudin asked Trail about his record.

"Have you ever written a false [police] report?" Boudin asked.

"No," Trail said.

"Never misrepresented the truth when testifying or participating in official proceedings?" Boudin asked.

"No," Trail said.

Since that hearing, Boudin has filed a series of motions based on the 2006 Police Commission records showing Trail was found to have filed an inaccurate report and misrepresented the truth about the 2004 Edwards shooting.

Boudin says his motions resulted in disclosure of nearly 2,000 pages of material on Trail that a judge has reviewed and determined should be provided to the defense under the prosecution's Brady v. Maryland disclosure obligations. Under a court order, most of the records involving Trail remain sealed and beyond public view.

In a hearing before Superior Court Judge Ross Moody last Friday, Boudin moved to dismiss the charges against Woodson based on Trail's prior misconduct record.

Had he been notified of Trail's history before the preliminary hearing, Boudin argued, he could have shown Trail was not being truthful in denying the earlier misconduct case.

Assistant District Attorney Kathleen McBride told Judge Moody during the Friday hearing that because the defense discovered the material on its own, the prosecution did not suppress it. She argued suppression is an element necessary to prove a Brady violation.

"I’m troubled by your argument," Judge Moody told McBride. "Your office was in at least constructive possession of damning material regarding Officer Trail." He noted sealed documents about Trail's misconduct case with the name of District Attorney Gascón -- then the city's police chief -- "right at the top."

"Why do you not have an obligation under Brady v. Maryland?" Moody asked McBride.

McBride said it was the defense's obligation to investigate "its obvious suspicion that there was more to the story regarding Officer Trail."

But since Boudin raised the issue, Trail's status on the Police Department's Brady list has changed. He's now listed as "pending," McBride said, "which would require me to notice Mr. Boudin."

"What would ever be enough to overcome an officer's testimony?" Boudin asked in court. "Is the standard really so low that the court is willing to accept blindly the testimony of an officer who lied in that very hearing?"

Moody called it "a very close case."

"The district attorney should have disclosed this information," Moody said. "Information that is this damning should have been turned over to the defense."

The prosecution has another witness, a paramedic whom the prosecution says corroborates Trail's version of events in the Woodson case. The paramedic didn't testify at the preliminary hearing, but with Trail's history of misconduct exposed, he'll likely be much more important to the prosecution's case as it moves toward trial in April.

Moody ultimately ruled that revelations about Trail's misconduct wouldn't necessarily have changed the outcome of the preliminary hearing.

"The court’s ruling today sets a dangerous precedent encouraging the district attorney to violate Brady and encouraging officers to lie on the stand," Boudin told Judge Moody.