An Eden Prairie police officer whose faulty search warrant caused the dismissal of a major drug case and called into question other convictions, should be reinstated because he did not intentionally falsify the record, a state arbitrator ruled.
Officer Travis Serafin’s actions upended the Southwest Hennepin Drug Task Force in October 2018 and sent Hennepin County prosecutors digging through reams of documents he had handled in dozens of cases. He was fired the following month.
A 100-page decision issued March 12 by arbitrator Joseph L. Daly ordered Serafin reinstated by April 1 without back pay. Eden Prairie issued a statement saying it received notice Monday and was reviewing the award and had made no decisions on whether to appeal.
Serafin’s lawyer, Isaac Kaufman of the Law Enforcement Labor Services union, said his client is “very pleased” with the decision. But it’s unclear what happens next. Eden Prairie can appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, reinstate Serafin or negotiate a settlement.
In November 2018, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced problems with a search warrant affidavit from Serafin from March of that year in a heroin case that led to drug and murder charges against Timothy Holmes.
Prosecutors said Serafin had a search warrant for Holmes’ house, where drugs were found, but he didn’t appear to have a warrant to search the car where additional drugs and a gun were uncovered.
A week after making the search, Serafin produced a second warrant application that covered both the house and car, prosecutors said. When asked under oath in court about the two applications, Serafin blamed clerical confusion during a hectic time at work.
Ultimately, the Hennepin County prosecutor dismissed charges against Holmes, dropped pending charges against others and opened investigations into former cases handled by the detective. At the time, then-Chief Assistant Hennepin County Attorney David Brown called Serafin’s actions “devastating,” saying they eroded public trust.
In firing Serafin, Eden Prairie determined that because he falsified a warrant and lied under oath, he could no longer testify in future cases. Because testifying in court is essential to police work, Serafin couldn’t do his job, the city argued in its termination decision. The union then filed the grievance on his behalf.
In the opinion, Daly unequivocally endorsed Serafin’s return to work and erasure of a stain from his career, going to so far as to say the value of his service could not be overstated and calling him one of the state’s top drug investigators.
“His entire professional experience as a police officer, his hard work, his training, the very high opinion that his fellow officers hold of him, and his testimony show he is highly credible and capable,” Daly wrote.
The arbitrator said he heard “five days of intense testimony” and received two extensive post-hearing briefs and responses before determining that Eden Prairie didn’t provide “clear and convincing evidence that just cause exists to terminate” Serafin.
The key question Daly said he faced was whether Serafin knowingly changed the search warrant to include the outbuilding and vehicle after the search, or just replaced a page that was lost.
Daly determined the page was lost. When Serafin went to create a replacement, he inadvertently pulled down the wrong cover page from his computer files. He didn’t recognize the mistake for months.
Serafin was a “credible witness” who passed a polygraph test and had made the mistake of “failing to ‘X out’ a box from a drop-down menu on the application page of the packet for a search warrant,” Daly wrote.
The officer then failed to recognize his “simple human mistake” until a “series of dreadful consequences occurred.”
“He did not lie, he did not falsify, and he credibly testified at the arbitration hearing,” Daly wrote.
Daly said he had no authority to tell Eden Prairie or county prosecutors what to do, but said Serafin has faced a “grave injustice” by being classified as not credible to testify.
“I would hope that Officer Serafin would have an opportunity to continue his work as a skilled and respected police officer in the City of Eden Prairie or in some other city he chooses to work,” Daly wrote.
Daly didn’t award back pay to Serafin because his “mistake caused no end of problems for himself,” the city, Hennepin and Ramsey County prosecutors and Minnesota citizens.
He added that Serafin’s error came amid a nine-day stretch of work on up to 20 drug cases, capped by working 17 hours straight on the eve of a training trip to Camp Ripley, planning a wedding anniversary trip, and an injury to his young daughter that resulted in her hospitalization.
“It likely came about because of the chaos he was facing for two days in a row,” Daly wrote. “Yet, just as a doctor who makes a mistake during a chaotic day, albeit unintentional mistake, must still face the consequences.”
As a result of Serafin’s search in the initial case, Holmes was charged with first-degree drug sale and third-degree murder related to the overdose death of a person to whom Holmes was alleged to have sold heroin.
In March 2018, Holmes pleaded guilty to the first-degree drug sale charge. As part of the plea, Hennepin County Judge Fred Karasov dropped the third-degree murder charge in the death of Margaret “Maggie” Lane.
Holmes was sentenced to six years in prison but has since been released.
Serafin started with the department in October 2000. His last day was Nov. 6, 2018. He earned an annual salary of $92,289. He was once named the department’s officer of the year.
McLeod County Attorney Michael Junge reviewed the case and determined that no criminal charges would be filed. Serafin didn’t commit perjury even though he lied in court under oath, Junge said. His false statement wasn’t “material” because it had no effect on the search warrant and its execution.