DETROIT (FOX 2) - A Detroit man sentenced to probation and deported for drugs had his conviction exonerated 16 years later after an investigation found that police lied and searched his home without consent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Joe Romeo, who was 55 at the time, was sentenced to two years of probation and deported to Italy after he was convicted of drug possession in July 2005. The exoneration means he can seek to return to the United States.
According to the Registry of Exonerations, police arrested Romeo on charges of possessing marijuana, cocaine, and a firearm in February 2005.
Officers alleged that they searched his home after receiving complaints from a neighbor that he was dealing drugs. They had a warrant but it was supposed to be for Romeo's brother, not him.
According to the exoneration registry, the officers testified that no one answered when they knocked on the front door. An officer said they went to a side door and saw someone peek out before disappearing.
A few minutes later, Romeo was arrested when he came to the side door. After he was arrested, an officer searched the home. That officer said he was doing so to make sure there were no people who could pose a threat inside the house.
The officer said he saw marijuana out in the open in a bedroom. Once a search warrant was obtained for the house, other officers searched the home and found 24 grams of weed, a gun, and cocaine. An officer testified that the drugs were packaged as if they were being sold or used recreationally.
According to the exoneration registry, Romeo said the drugs belonged to his brother. He said the small amount of weed found in a bedroom was a keepsake from the 1980s.
Romeo waived his right to a jury trial and was sentenced directly by a judge. His sentence was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals in February 2007 because, according to the court, there was intent to deliver the "significant" amount of drugs found.
Romeo later requested that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office's Conviction Integrity Unit investigate his case.
His brother who Romeo alleged the drugs belonged to had since died, and Romeo and his sister said the brother admitted the drugs were his before his death, according to the exoneration registry.
The CIU found that there was no evidence that neighbors had made reports to police about drug deals at the home, meaning that officers lied to search the house.
The exoneration registry also noted that Romeo had no history of drug use and has never been arrested, while his brother had a criminal history and was addicted to drugs.
Romeo's conviction was vacated on July 12, 2021.
Wayne County's Conviction Integrity Unit was credited by the National Registry of Exonerations as a driving force behind many of the state's 2020 exonerations. Michigan had the second-highest number of exonerations in the country last year – 20 – and Wayne County's CIU helped with 13 of those.
So far, Michigan has exonerated three people in 2021.