FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) – Two members of a Fall River police unit responsible for running high-profile drug investigations are facing discipline for improperly handling evidence that could result in at least a dozen cases getting tossed out, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.

Fall River Police Chief Jefferey Cardoza confirmed Tuesday the department is disciplining Det. Joshua Robillard and Sgt. Luis Duarte, both formerly of the Vice and Intelligence Unit. The chief said Robillard was discovered improperly keeping confiscated drugs inside his desk instead of documenting and submitting them into an evidence locker. A portion of the drugs found in Robillard’s desk had been tagged by Duarte, he added.

“We’re not talking about one small bag,” Cardoza said about the evidence found in Robillard’s desk. “We’re talking about multiple, multiple packages.”

Robillard, who worked for the vice squad for at least eight years, was reassigned out of the unit to a non-investigatory assignment during the internal probe. Cardoza said the detective would begin serving an unpaid suspension this week, but declined to disclose how long. A message left with Robillard’s union group was not immediately returned.

“Detective Robillard will not — as long as I am the chief of police here — will not ever be in an investigative assignment,” Cardoza said. “He will be assigned to in-house duties as long as I am chief. We have given him a lengthy, a very lengthy suspension.”

The internal investigation began in February after an accusation surfaced that Robillard was giving confiscated drugs to confidential informants in exchange for information on drug dealers. Cardoza said that accusation was unfounded after both the Bristol County District Attorney’s office and the Mass. State Police investigated the tip. No criminal charges were filed.

But a subsequent internal investigation — headed by former Fall River Police Chief Jonathan Souza — led to the discovery of the seized narcotics inside Robillard’s desk. The drugs had no paperwork other than those documented by Duarte.

When asked why he decided to suspend rather than fire Robillard, Cardoza underscored that the detective admitted to mishandling the evidence, chalking it up to sloppy police work rather than nefarious actions. He said the investigation into Robillard is now closed.

“Every decision I have made inside the building and outside the building has been second guessed by people — it just comes with the territory,” Cardoza said. “A very lengthy suspension and an assignment inside was the best decision for the organization.”

The detective’s mishandling of evidence, however, is already raising questions outside the department among defense attorneys, who are asking whether similar behavior happened in the past and how it might affect open and closed cases. The Vice and Intelligence Unit is a well-known division of the city’s police force, responsible for some of the biggest drug busts in city history, according to a Target 12 review of hundreds of court documents.

Bristol County District Attorney spokesperson Gregg Miliote said at least a dozen cases in Fall River District Court could be affected, along with an unknown number in Bristol County Superior Court. The DA based that estimate on upcoming cases involving Robillard as witness. In accordance with the law, Miliote said defense attorneys in those cases are being notified. He also acknowledged that the list of affected cases could grow.

“We’ll have to handle the potential ramifications on a case-by-case basis, or if a defense counsel wants to look back and file a motion,” Miliote said. “That’s clearly appropriate.”

Kevin Reddington, a long-time South Coast defense attorney who’s currently representing a man arrested by Robillard, said the development “could deal a fatal blow to any case he was lead detective on.”

“It does create a very, very heavy amount of baggage for the prosecutor,” said Reddington.

Fall River attorney Sarah Emery, who currently represents a handful of defendants arrested by the vice squad, declined to comment on how Robillard’s mishandling of evidence might affect her legal strategy moving forward. But Emery said she was shocked by the news and expects the number of affected cases to increase as more people learn about it.

“I’d be surprised if it was only a dozen,” Emery said Tuesday.

Cardoza would not comment on what specific drug cases might be affected, but Robillard’s actions have already come up in at least one case so far. Defense attorney Mark Booker confirmed Robillard in April unexpectedly admitted to being under investigation for mishandling evidence while testifying in one of his cases.

Booker estimated most attorneys handling drug arrests in Bristol County Superior Court or Fall River District Court have at least one case involving the vice squad, and he encouraged lawyers to “roll up their sleeves and do the painstaking work of digging through files, making motions in front of judges and being dogged in the pursuit of truth and justice.”

Booker also expects many accused and convicted drug offenders arrested by the vice squad over the past eight years will likely start reaching out to attorneys after hearing about Robillard’s actions, especially because it’s unclear which cases might have been affected. He likened it to the aftermath of the Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak scandals, involving Massachusetts chemists convicted of tampering with drug evidence.

Thousands of drug cases were thrown out as a result of their misconduct.

“[Defendants] read that news and said, ‘Hey, it turns out that while the government is pointing a finger at me, four fingers should have been pointed back at the government,'” Booker said about the misconduct. “If a person has a good reason to attack the validity of a drug conviction that has already occurred in Fall River, I’d say, more power to them, and they should do it promptly.”

Inside the Fall River Police Department, Cardoza has already moved to shake up the vice unit, and now requires supervisors to examine all evidence that comes into the building.

“It goes directly to the evidence locker,” the police chief said.

Mayor Paul Coogan, who appointed Cardoza roughly a year ago after the former police chief stepped down amid a separate Target 12 investigation, lauded the current chief for trying to clean up misconduct inside the department.

“We don’t want anyone there stepping outside the line,” Coogan told Target 12.

Cardoza, a veteran of nearly 30 years, nonetheless apologized for Robillard’s actions.

“I’m sorry it occurred and obviously the buck stops with me,” Cardoza said. “I am going to do everything I can to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.