Williamson County Deputy’s Past Hinders a Felony Prosecution

Austin American-Statesman, Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The DWI Conviction of Richard Cline Raises Questions About the Hiring Practices in Williamson County

Williamson County, Texas, Deputy, Richard “Monty” Cline, was prepared to testify against 37 year-old Anna Berry at a felony drunken driving trial when Berry’s lawyer discovered that Cline had something in common with his client: at least two misdemeanor convictions, one for drunk driving.

The news heralded the downward spiral of Richard Cline’s credibility, and the prosecutors’ case against Anna Berry, who could have received 10 years in prison for her DWI charge. In a deal with prosecutors, Berry pleaded no contest Thursday to obstructing a passageway, a Class B misdemeanor.  She received one year deferred adjudication, a type of probation.

Cline is on paid leave from the sheriff’s department pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Revelations about his background raise questions about law enforcement hiring standards and whether other officers have pasts that can’t withstand scrutiny in a courtroom.

“The abiding concern I have in the wake of all this is, how many other Clines are there out there who are pulling people over, arresting them for felony offenses and charging them with crimes they themselves have committed?”  asked Robert M. Phillips, Anna Berry’s lawyer.  “It makes one wonder how much confidence the public can really have in their law enforcement officers.”

How Could the Sheriff’s Department Let This Happen?
Sheriff James Wilson, who took office in January, called Cline’s 2002 hiring a “bureaucratic SNAFU.” He said the department does its own background checks. “I don’t find a mentor or an angel for him… who could have had a hand in helping to overlook his past,” Wilson said. “We are taking steps to make sure we don’t have other problems in this area.”

The Unraveling of Cline’s Past
The case began unraveling last month, when Robert M. Phillips subpoenaed Cline’s personnel file from the sheriff’s department. Phillips said he read the file in the judge’s office and began furiously scribbling notes. “I couldn’t believe what I was finding,” he said.  “The stuff was so hot, it was burning my hands.”

What Phillips found was a 1991 conviction for drunk driving, and a 1996 conviction for hindering a secured creditor, a class A misdemeanor. Richard Cline received probation in Travis County for both crimes, according to court records.

In August of 1999, three years after his last conviction, Cline submitted a false document to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement that stated he had not been convicted of anything above a class c misdemeanor within the past five years, according to commission documents. However, Cline did report the error to the commission the next month and agreed to a temporary suspension of his peace officer license. He was allowed to reapply in July 2001. The Williamson County sheriff’s department hired him in May 2002.

Since 1999, the commission has raised its standards, Director Cynthia Martinez said, and Cline’s past would bar him from obtaining a license today. The new rules block candidates with felony or class A misdemeanor convictions, she said. Martinez said applicants’ statements regarding criminal history are accepted “on the honors system” unless agency workers have reason to suspect otherwise.

A Key Witness Losses Credibility
Williamson County District Attorney, John Bradley, said it is debatable whether Phillips could have questioned Richard Cline about his background in front of a jury. But conversations with Cline about his past caused prosecutors to lose faith in him as a witness, Bradley said. “The officer was not candid with us,” he said.

Shannon Edmonds, a lawyer with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors do not regularly dig into officer’s pasts. “Most prosecutors assume, if someone is walking around with a badge and a gun, they do not have the type of criminal history that will impeach their credibility at trial,” Edmonds said.  “If this starts to be a trend., maybe it is something prosecutors will have to start thinking about in the future.”

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