Schenectady County

Schenectady police video prompts quick guilty plea

Police had just received a call for a suspicious man outside a home that had been raided for drug


Police had just received a call for a suspicious man outside a home that had been raided for drugs earlier in the day.

The man went up to the house, left, came back, then sat waiting for a half hour, reclined in the driver’s seat, a neighbor reported.

What happened next, with two officers approaching, was caught on video. Much of what was said, aside from the ensuing chase that took the officers out of range, caught on the audio.

What was caught, along with the testimony Thursday of one of the approaching officers, helped turn a pre-trial hearing in a weapons case into a swift guilty plea, a prosecutor said.

“The officers would have testified to everything they observed and everything the defendant did,” prosecutor Matthew Sypniewski said, referring to his specific case. “But, certainly, we think this was an example of where the audio and video would have strengthened that testimony by corroborating that at the hearing.”

The Schenectady Police Department’s in-car video system has been under scrutiny this week after it was revealed that audio wasn’t recorded after a December 2008 traffic accident involving long-suspended Officer John Lewis. Also, the in-car video wasn’t activated when the responding officers in that case, Daniel Bean and Matthew Overocker, gave Lewis an ill-advised ride home.

The absence of video and audio evidence in the Lewis case led to a more complicated case for prosecutors. It has also resulted in an internal affairs investigation against the actions of the officers at the Lewis stop.

The defendant in Thursday’s hearing, Minks Jean-Francois, 23, of Albany, had earlier rejected a plea deal that would have netted him three years in state prison, a deal that was off the table once Thursday’s hearing began.

But, after hearing the testimony of one of the responding officers, Christopher North, testimony that included the video, Jean-Francois asked for and received a new deal: 31⁄2 years.

Thursday’s hearing was to determine whether officers had the right to recover a gun from inside Jean-Francois’ car without a warrant.

Officers approached Jean-Francois the evening of Oct. 9 as he was parked near 921 Norwood Ave. Police had notified neighbors to call them if they saw any suspicious activity at the residence. Hours earlier, police raided the home, finding more than eight ounces of heroin with an estimated street value of $85,000, one of the largest such busts in city history. Three people were charged related to the operation; their cases remain pending.

But Jean-Francois apparently wasn’t aware of the raid. Prosecutors have said it appears he may have been trying to rob the occupants.

At Thursday’s pre-trial hearing, North testified about the camera system. He was working with partner Adam Nowicki that evening.

They pulled up behind the suspect’s car, activating the camera and audio system “as we do with any interaction with the public,” North testified.

The video caught Jean-Francois getting out and then running. During the foot chase, North testified Jean-Francois shed a construction glove and his car keys. Police said that he was carrying duct tape.

Inside his car, police would find the gun on the passenger side seat.

Jean-Francois’ attorney, Charles Mango, had suggested police used his client’s keys to unlock the car and check the inside, finding the gun. Mango argued that was an illegal search.

Sypniewski contended the glove, in mild weather, the duct tape and the recent raid gave officers the probable cause to look in his vehicle.

If there was a limitation to the system it was after Jean-Francois was placed in the patrol car. The video switched from an outside view of the suspect’s car to an inside view of the suspect in the back seat.

The switch, North testified, is required by department procedures for whenever a suspect or person is in custody in the rear of the car.

Mango noted later it didn’t catch video of the officers looking at Jean-Francois’ car, or what exactly they did to see the gun. North testified he didn’t hunt for the gun, but saw it. He couldn’t recall whether he saw it through a window or open door.

Also activated was an internal microphone recording whatever the suspect says. But the officer’s microphone also continues to record on the track.

Sypniewski only played the portion of video until Jean-Francois was placed in the patrol car. The rest was to be played after lunch, with the testimony of North’s partner, Nowicki.

But the video was never played. As Nowicki took the stand after lunch, Jean-Francois gave the court a notification through his attorney that he was ready to plead guilty.

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