Surprise video puts an end to drug trial
A Los Angeles judge abruptly ended a trial and exonerated a man of possessing cocaine Monday after a courtroom confrontation in which a defense attorney produced a surprise video of his client’s arrest that sharply contradicted the testimony of two police officers.
Superior Court Judge Monica Bachner dismissed charges against Guillermo Alarcon Jr., a grocery store worker, after prosecutors reviewed the tape and acknowledged that it was inconsistent with the officers’ sworn testimony.
Los Angeles Police Department officials said they had launched an internal affairs investigation of the officers. Additionally, prosecutors said they would refer the matter to a division within the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office that investigates police misconduct cases.
During the trial, which began Friday, the officers told jurors that they had chased Alarcon, 29, into his Hollywood apartment building last year and seen him throw away a black object. They testified that one of the officers picked up the object a few feet from where Alarcon was standing and discovered powder and crack cocaine inside.
But footage from the grainy video, which Alarcon’s attorney said came from an apartment building surveillance camera, shows that it took the two officers more than 20 minutes to find the drugs. They were also aided by other officers in their search.
The quality of the tape, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, is poor and it is difficult to clearly hear what is being said. But at one point, an officer seems to make a reference to the arrest report that needed to be filled out.
“Be creative in your writing,” the officer appears to tell another after the discovery.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, sin duda [no doubt],” comes the reply.
In allegations echoing misconduct from the Rampart corruption scandal of the late 1990s, Deputy Public Defender Victor Acevedo said the cocaine was not Alarcon’s and described the prosecution’s case as “completely trumped up.”
“They have two officers who came into court and blatantly lied and planted evidence,” he told Bachner on Monday.
Like the officers, prosecutors in the case said they were unaware that the videotape existed until Acevedo produced it in court Friday. On Monday, prosecutors said that they had reviewed the 37-minute video and that it appeared to have been edited in two places to remove about 13 seconds of sound. Nevertheless, they said, its contents meant that they could no longer proceed with the case.
“The videotape speaks for itself,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Liza Tom said. “There do appear to be sufficient inconsistencies to render a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt unlikely in this case.”
Tom said prosecutors had yet to talk to the officers about their testimony and the video evidence.
Police Cmdr. Richard Webb, who oversees the department’s internal affairs group, said his investigators were notified about the court hearing Monday afternoon.
“We’re trying to figure out the facts as fast as we possibly can,” Webb said. “Bottom line: We take this kind of stuff very, very seriously.”
The drug charges against Alarcon rested almost entirely on the word of the two officers, Richard Amio and Evan Samuel.
Both men joined the LAPD in 2002. Amio works as a patrol officer in the Hollywood Division. Samuel left the department six months ago and works for the Chino Police Department. Neither appeared in court Monday, nor could they be reached for comment.
On Friday, the officers appeared confident and composed as they testified one at a time. The two men said they were driving down Ardmore Avenue just south of Santa Monica Boulevard on July 6 when they recognized Alarcon, a suspected gang member, standing on the sidewalk outside his apartment complex.
As they shined their car’s spotlight at him, they said, Alarcon fled down one of the building’s walkways. The officers said they jumped out of their car and chased him into the building’s carport. There, they testified, they saw Alarcon throw a black box toward a dumpster.
“As it hit the dumpster, I observed that once it landed on the floor it cracked open,” Amio told jurors.
During his testimony, Amio was asked whether it took about 20 minutes to find the drugs.
“No,” he replied, with a laugh.
Samuel gave a similar account.
“He threw it to his right and it hit off a dumpster in the same general area,” Samuel testified.
The officers said that Samuel picked up the box. Inside, he found 12 bindles of powder cocaine and two rocks of crack cocaine with a street value of about $260.
Alarcon was arrested on suspicion of drug possession with the intent to sell.
Under cross-examination, Samuel and Amio denied hearing or saying several comments that the defense contended were made by officers on the video, including a threat against Alarcon to put him on his knees if he talked again.
The questioning climaxed when Alarcon’s attorney finally asked Amio: “Are you aware of a video and audio recording that completely contradicts what you have testified to today?”
“No, sir,” Amio replied.
The defense attorney had planned to question the officers about the tape Monday, but prosecutors moved to dismiss the case before the trial resumed.
The video starts shortly after Alarcon was detained in the carport. Officers had seen Alarcon close the door to a nearby laundry room. On the video, the officers spent roughly 15 minutes looking for someone to unlock the room’s door.
The video does not show who found the drugs. But after nearly 25 minutes, it shows a group of officers huddled together talking about opening a container. They opened the container and appeared to find drugs.
Acevedo alleged that the drugs found by the officers were not his client’s and might have been planted by police. The tape, however, does not show drugs being planted.
The attorney accused the officers of targeting his client after they arrested him several weeks earlier on suspicion of assault, but discovered he had been released without charge.
Alarcon said he was relieved his case had been dropped, saying that he had lived for a year with the threat of going to prison. Before the trial, he said, prosecutors had offered him two years in prison if he pleaded guilty.
“If I didn’t have the videotape, nobody would believe me,” said Alarcon, who said he was not a gang member.
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who has studied the LAPD and pushed for reforms, said the department has tried in recent years to root out dishonest officers, particularly since Chief William J. Bratton took over in 2002. But she said, there are some who take shortcuts and lie.
“In their minds, they’re compensating for a system that’s rigged to keep them from making the arrests and getting the convictions they want,” she said.