Drug Traffic : Crackdown Clearing Streets but Clogging the Courts

Times Staff Writer

The Inglewood Police Department’s narcotics crackdown has given the city reason to celebrate.

Since May, undercover police officers have made thousands of arrests, and streets once crowded with drug dealers and customers are back to normal.

But as the streets cleared, South Bay courts have become jammed with felony narcotics cases.

“We didn’t know what hit us,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Fork.

“It has been extremely hectic since the crackdown started. Everyone has been working incredibly long hours and we are still struggling to keep up.”


Fork is one of seven prosecutors in the Inglewood Municipal Court system, which handles initial trial proceedings for felony cases from Inglewood, El Segundo, Hawthorne, Lennox and parts of Los Angeles. He said his workload has almost doubled since the narcotics crackdown began in May and he is coming to work 1 1/2 hours earlier each day.

Court records show that the Inglewood office of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office filed 382 felony cases in June, compared to 139 cases in June the previous year. About half of the cases were narcotics charges stemming from Inglewood’s undercover effort in which officers made 1,502 arrests in the Dixon/Darby and Hyde Park neighborhoods.

For a time, the areas were two of the county’s most notorious markets for rock cocaine--a highly concentrated, extremely addictive form of the drug, police said.

In recent months, the task force has been making fewer arrests as drug traffickers look for new places to do business. Still, the pending caseload in Inglewood Municipal Court is running about 70% ahead of this time last year. And deputy public defenders, criminal clerks and other court employees say they are working grueling hours to keep up with the rise in narcotics cases.

In Torrance Superior Court, where felony trials are held, prosecutors say they have not noticed as much impact from the crackdown. About half of the defendants arrested during the undercover sweeps are first-time offenders who were buying, not selling, narcotics, said Peter Berman, chief deputy district attorney in the Torrance office. They are usually eligible for a pretrial diversion program that is similar to probation, and so they never get as far as the Torrance court.

A first-time offender charged with selling narcotics, however, is not eligible for the program.

But although fewer cases reach Superior Court, the 22 deputy district attorneys in the Torrance office are juggling an average of 60 cases at all times, compared to an average of 50 last year, Berman said. “All I can say is that we need more lawyers,” Berman said. “The lawyers are working more hours now than they really should have to work. They are not able to work on their pending cases as well as they might like to before the trial.”

Neither the Inglewood nor Torrance courts have received additional staff to help with the workload, and they are not likely to do so in the next six months, said Mike Tranbarger, a court system official who helps oversee suburban courts.

Although they wholeheartedly support the crackdown, some deputy district attorneys say the increased workload could lead to burnout and eventually harm the quality of prosecution.

“The public might get a better shot if they had more manpower in these offices and attorneys had more time to spend preparing their cases,” said Mark B. Vezzani, a deputy district attorney in the Torrance office.

The defendants might get better representation, too, if the public defender’s office was not just as swamped, said Arnold Lester, deputy public defender in the Torrance court. “We’re going crazy here,” he said.

Fork said it is not unusual to see attorneys eating lunch on an elevator or spending the weekend doing paper work.

Less Time With Family

“Hard work is part of being a civil servant, but there is just so much a human body can withstand, and when your job starts to affect other areas of your life it becomes very difficult,” said Fork, who said he spends considerably less time with his family since the narcotics crackdown crammed his schedule.

“I get into the office every morning at 6:30 and it’s killing me to try and go through 25 to 30 arraignments every week,” said Vezzani, who jokes about how he doesn’t “even have time to use the washroom most of the time.”

“There is a hell of a lot of stress and a hell of a lot of burnout around here, and we probably have it good compared to the deputies out in the Municipal Court.”

Indeed, prosecutors in the Inglewood office of the district attorney say they worked under a great deal of pressure before the narcotics crackdown. Prosecutors have, at most, 48 hours from the time of arrest to prepare for an arraignment, in which defendants claim innocence or guilt.

The prosecutors then have about 10 days to prepare for the preliminary hearing, where a judge determines if there is sufficient evidence to justify holding a trial. If so, the cases are transferred to Torrance Superior Court, where a second arraignment is held before the trial begins.

Because of a criminal case backlog, it can take up to three months for the second arraignment to be held, and an additional three months--the maximum delay under the state’s speedy-trial law, unless the defendant waives it--for their trials to begin, Tranbarger said.

Almost 90% of the defendants plead guilty before trial, however, with the understanding that prosecutors will seek a more lenient sentence, said Berman.

But he noted that some defendants have pleaded guilty because Inglewood police used surveillance techniques that provided “airtight cases that don’t leave much room for defense.”

“I think the defendants reach a point where they realize that there is not much they can do when the evidence is stacked up against them so they plead guilty hoping they might get a break in terms of sentencing,” Berman said. “But defendants are getting less and less in return for their guilty pleas because narcotics cases are drawing stiffer sentences.”

Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner in August issued a sentencing guideline that told his deputies to shoot for stiffer sentences than were being given for narcotics cases.

For instance, Reiner’s guideline holds that first-time offenders found guilty of the possession of narcotics for sale should be sentenced to a minimum of 180 days in county jail instead of the 45- to 90-day sentences that were commonly served. Those caught dealing a second time should be sent to state prison for up to three years, under the guideline.

An informal study of the Los Angeles County Superior Court system found that judges in Torrance tend to dole out stiffer sentences, especially for multiple offenders, Vezzani said.

That makes their hectic work schedules worthwhile, prosecutors say.

“When the judges start handing out stiffer sentences it sends a clear message to people who are dealing in the street that the Establishment considers drugs to be a very serious matter,” Fork said.

“By having a narcotics crackdown we all recognized that we are going to have to work longer and harder, but we just hope that we will have made enough of an impact that overall crime is down.”