Flagler County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Neat faces a written reprimand for “unsatisfactory or incompetent performance” uncovered in an internal investigation following allegations that drug evidence against an individual was manipulated to make it look worse than it was, thereby aggravating his potential prison sentence. (See the full investigation below.)
Christopher Demon Lang was sentenced to 10 years in prison last April in Flagler County Circuit Court on a cocaine trafficking charge. But had his lawyer, Bryan Lambert, not uncovered a serious error in the evidence submitted against him, Lang could have faced up to 30 years in prison.
Lang, whose street name is “Man Man,” is no victim. His first felony conviction locally goes back 17 years, on the sort of drug-trafficking charge he’d be habitually arrested some two dozen times since, including at least 14 times when he’s been either on bail or on probation, mostly on drug charges. He served three stints in state prison before his latest sentence: the barbed-wire tattoo on his left arm is more than symbolic.
When he was slapped with his next-to-latest trafficking charge he agreed to a plea that would have resulted in another six-year sentence. That was on a trafficking charge from 2012. He was out on bond, awaiting sentencing, when the sheriff’s office got a search warrant for his 302 East Drain Street house, and found cocaine there.
How much cocaine, however, became the question: as a prosecutor conceded to a sheriff’s investigator during the internal affairs investigation, “the search warrant return did to match the evidence submittals which didn’t match the 707 [the charging affidavit] and didn’t match the photographs.”
Three baggies of crack cocaine had been originally inventoried from the search: one of 25.8 grams, one of 6.1 grams, and one of about 1 gram, for a total of 32.9 grams. Somehow, the bags later turned into a baggie of 57 grams and one of 13 grams, or a total of 70 grams, according to Lang’s attorney. How? Because, he concluded, the 13-gram bag was from another search warrant served on Booe Street the same day, and the 57 grams had been the result of multiple searched combined into one bag.
There were discrepancies, the internal affairs investigation found, but no “intermingling of evidence from different cases.”
Had Lambert not detected the discrepancies, Lang would have faced the more serious prison term. Lambert last fall contacted local media about the issue. When the News-Journal’s Tony Holt asked the sheriff’s office about it in mid-November, it launched the internal investigation. The results of that investigation were released late Friday, along with the results of a second, unrelated investigation, that one into the false arrest of Bunnell’s Dakota Ward in March. (See that story here.) It is not unusual for public agencies to release unflattering news on a Friday afternoon or evening, when fewer people are paying attention.
Discrepancies and a missing bag of crack are left unexplained.
Neat had been recently promoted to sergeant after a spotless, 13-year career at the sheriff’s office when the internal investigation was launched. He’d been in charge of the Drain Street case. Detectives executing the search warrant there had documented the discovery and seizure of the original amounts of cocaine totaling 32 grams, along with a zip-lock bag containing another piece of crack. By the time Neat prepared a supplemental report, the amounts had increased to the larger total, the investigative report shows. But investigators never found the zip-lock bag, which was never entered into evidence, according to the investigative report. (What’s clearer is that evidence was collected from several locations that day.)
When the internal affairs investigator asked Neat “why there were three items of cocaine listed on the Search Warrant Inventory and Return and only two items of cocaine entered into evidence,” his answer pointed to the day’s apparent confusion and lack of enough personnel at the scenes. “He said there was so much going on that day and he was the supervisor in charge,” the report states. “He said he ran out of people and had to become the case agent for the house even though he was running the entire operation which included several arrest teams and arrest warrants as well as Bunnell Police Department because it was in their jurisdiction.” (Detective Mark Moy filled out the 707 at Neat’s request, though Neat did not provide the gram amount on the 707 to Moy; he did not remember who had provided that amount.)
That day, the sheriff’s office was serving 23 narcotics warrants and four search warrants.
But he did not personally examine the content of evidence envelope as they were being brought out. The discrepancy would have turned up, he said, “when he finally brought the items back to the Operations Center and recorded line for line what was in the envelopes that he saw and witnessed,” the report states. He could not remember what had happened to the missing piece of crack. “He said it could have been lost at some point,” the report states. Neat had been unaware of the missing zip-lock bag (and denies ever seeing it) until he was told of the missing bag in the internal affairs interview.
Neat told the internal investigator that the amount found at Lang’s Drain Street house “was over the trafficking amount of 28 grams and it wouldn’t have mattered to later amend the amount to the higher amount found because the charge would stay the same,” the report states.
The investigation found that Neat “should have made sure that his Search Warrant Inventory and Return information matched what was in the manila envelopes prior to leaving” the Drain Street address, and that he should have compared the inventory and return document with the evidence/property receipt and his own supplement.
“There is no explanation as to why there is 25.8 grams of cocaine on the Inventory and Return,” the investigation concludes, “or why there is an amount of 31.6 grams of cocaine noted on Christopher Lang’s 707, or where the missing zip lock bag containing crack went.”
Based on his spotless past, a commander’s recommendation in Neat’s case was that disciplinary action, which he has 10 days to appeal, be limited to a written reprimand. The internal affairs investigation had been completed on April 7.