An Eden Prairie police detective’s falsified search warrant in a drug case that sent a man to prison has called into question 32 other cases and led to a criminal investigation of the officer, Hennepin County prosecutors said Friday.
The county attorney reviewed cases handled by detective Travis Serafin after he seized drugs from the car of 36-year-old Timothy M. Holmes without a search warrant in September 2017, then falsified one afterward.
At a news conference Friday morning, Chief Deputy Hennepin County Attorney David Brown said he believes Serafin’s misconduct is limited to the lone case, but defense attorneys were notified in other cases involving Serafin that remained open at the time he falsified the warrant.
As a result, 32 cases are targets for dismissal because Serafin was a critical witness. There are another 11 cases in which Serafin was a peripheral witness, and the defense lawyers have been contacted. Two people in prison, including Holmes, will likely be released.
“It’s devastating; I’ve been a prosecutor in Hennepin County for over 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Brown said. “Our trust, the trust of the law enforcement officers who do just exceptional work, and the trust in our prosecutors is everything, so when something like this happens as part of our initiative in doing the right thing, we know our obligation is to take steps as soon as we can to right that wrong.”
On Friday, Holmes’ attorney Fred Goetz said he filed a motion seeking to withdraw his client’s guilty plea and vacate his sentence.
“This is a significant development and we believe it’s going to have a significant impact on our case,” he said.
Serafin could not be reached for comment. Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the union that represents Eden Prairie police officers, said: “We are concerned any time questions are raised about a member of our law enforcement community. However, we caution against making a rush to judgment.”
Serafin, 41, was hired by Eden Prairie in October 2000. He was named officer of the year. The city listed his status as employed but would not say whether he was on leave or was currently being paid. He earns $92,289 annually.
Eden Prairie Police Chief Greg Weber said in a statement that an administrative investigation has begun.
“The Eden Prairie Police Department holds officers to extremely high ethical standards. The Department also affords officers time for due process if their actions are called into question,” Weber said. “Although it is difficult for me not to provide further comment on an issue involving the Eden Prairie Police Department, it is important for our organization to follow appropriate protocol.”
A second warrant turns up
As part of a September 2017 drug investigation, Serafin obtained a search warrant for a house and found large amounts of heroin and fentanyl, Brown said. Serafin then searched Holmes’ car and found a smaller amount of drugs. Holmes was charged with first-degree drug sale and third-degree murder related to the overdose death of a person to whom Holmes had sold heroin.
As prosecutor Michael Radmer reviewed the file, he noticed there was no search warrant for the car. He asked Serafin for it, and a week later Serafin sent a warrant that was identical to the first, including the judge’s signature. This time, however, it included language authorizing a search of the car.
In January 2018, Goetz, Holmes’ attorney, questioned why there were two search warrants. Serafin testified in a hearing that the discrepancy was due to a “clerical error” in the warrants.
In March, Holmes pleaded guilty to a first-degree drug sale charge. As part of the plea, Hennepin County Judge Fred Karasov dropped the third-degree murder charge. Holmes was sentenced to six years in prison.
Karasov, however, was concerned about the two warrants and sent a transcript of Serafin’s testimony to the Eden Prairie police. The city investigated and found a “preponderance of evidence” establishing misconduct by Serafin. They determined that Serafin had created a second warrant for the car and claimed it had been signed by Hennepin District Judge Jay Quam, but the judge had signed only the warrant for the house.
‘Inexcusable’ and ‘baffling’
Serafin was removed from the Southwest Hennepin Drug Task Force and a SWAT team training unit and required to attend ethics training and work with a supervisor on the “creation and execution of any future search warrants.” Brown said the findings have been forwarded to the McLeod County Attorney’s Office for possible charges against Serafin.
“Detective Serafin’s behavior was wrong and inexcusable,” Brown said. “It was also baffling to us because the legal search of the home provided more than enough evidence for our case, and if he had been honest, we would simply have agreed to have the drugs from the car be removed from consideration in those cases. The fair trial of a defendant depends on complete truthfulness by everyone involved. That did not happen here.”
Of the cases involved in which Serafin was the main witness, three men are in prison. Two could be released; the third has other charges pending in another county.
Five men are in diversion programs, and their convictions will be dismissed and expunged, Brown said. In 17 cases, defense lawyers have been asked to file motions to vacate convictions, which the prosecutors will then do, Brown said. Serafin had four active warrants out that will be dismissed.
In 14 other cases, Serafin was determined to be a peripheral witness. Three of those were sent to diversion so they will be dismissed and expunged. Of the remaining 11 cases, defense lawyers have been notified.
Serafin also played a key role in the arrest and convictions of Beverly Burrell, a major heroin dealer. Her case is not one of those at issue in the investigation because it was completed before the date on the falsified warrant.
“While there should have never been this kind of dishonesty in the first place, everyone has done their best to repair these damages collectively,” Brown said. “We feel like we have taken the steps to repair damages and restore integrity to the system.”