Three Los Angeles police officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy Tuesday for allegedly lying under oath in a drug-possession case that was dismissed last year when a videotape sharply contradicted their testimony.
The felony charges mark the most serious allegations of police perjury in Los Angeles since the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal about a decade ago.
Prosecutors allege in court documents that two officers falsely testified during the trial that they saw a suspect throw an object that split open to reveal crack and powder cocaine. They said they immediately recovered the drugs. A third officer is accused of falsely claiming in an earlier court hearing that he did not help his two colleagues search for the drugs.
The drug trial ended dramatically when a defense attorney produced grainy surveillance video of the area shortly after the arrest took place. The quality of the tape, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, is poor but shows a group of officers searching for more than 20 minutes before one announces that drugs have been found.
It is difficult to 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 drugs are found.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, sin duda [no doubt],” is the reply.
After viewing the video, a judge took the unusual step of declaring the defendant to be “factually innocent.”
“This is very, very disturbing,” said John Mack, president of the L.A. Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the department. “We expect LAPD officers to possess the highest integrity and certainly we expect them to be truthful. This is frankly a black mark.”
Chief William J. Bratton called the allegations “as serious a charge as you can levy against officers,” but said he was confident that it was an isolated incident.
He and Mack said sweeping reforms in the wake of the department’s Rampart scandal, in which dozens of officers were accused of serious misconduct, including perjury and evidence-tampering, had made it much more difficult for officers to engage in such behavior.
“This is not something that we sweep under the rug,” Bratton said. “When we find it, we deal with it.”
Attorneys for the accused officers said their clients would fight the charges and noted that portions of the video appear to have been edited. The footage, which comes from an apartment complex managed by the suspect’s mother, also begins after his arrest.
“Once again, Los Angeles is going to be subjected to the sad spectacle of officers unfairly charged because the video camera goes on either too early, too late or is edited,” said attorney Ira Salzman, who represents one of the officers. “We don’t know how it was edited. And if the video was turned on earlier, it would have presented a completely different view of the case.”
The drug charges rested almost entirely on the word of the police officers.
Officers Richard Amio and Evan Samuel testified that they were on patrol in East Hollywood on July 6, 2007, when they recognized Guillermo Alarcon, a suspected gang member, standing on the sidewalk outside his apartment.
As they shined their car’s spotlight at him, they said, Alarcon fled down a walkway. The officers chased him into the apartment building’s carport. There, they testified, they saw Alarcon throw a black box -- which turned out to be a key holder -- toward a trash bin.
“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.
The officers said Samuel picked up the box. Inside, they said, he found 12 bindles of powder cocaine and two rocks of crack cocaine, a total street value of about $260.
Under cross-examination, Samuel and Amio denied that the key holder had been found by Officer Manuel Ortiz and that it had to be pried open. The questioning climaxed when Alarcon’s attorney 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 video starts shortly after Alarcon was detained in the carport. Officers had seen Alarcon close the door to a nearby laundry room. The video shows the officers spending roughly 15 minutes looking for someone to unlock the door to the room.
The video does not show who found the drugs. But more than five minutes after the door is opened, it shows a group of officers huddled together talking about trying to open a container. An officer appears to say, “Manny found that.”
After viewing the tape, prosecutors said they believed about 13 seconds of audio had been edited out. Nevertheless, they asked a judge to dismiss the charges against Alarcon.
Allegations of police officers testifying falsely are hardly unusual in criminal cases, but perjury charges against officers are rare. Prosecutors and others note that defense attorneys and defendants have a vested interest in portraying police as untruthful.
To file a criminal case, prosecutors must believe that someone intentionally lied rather than simply made a mistake and that any lie could have affected the outcome of a case.
“Perjury charges are rare against anyone, and rare against police officers,” said Sergio Gonzalez, the L.A. County deputy district attorney who oversees the unit that prosecutes police officers.
Gonzalez could recall only one case in recent years in which an on-duty police officer was charged with lying in court. Alarcon’s defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Victor Acevedo, said he was gratified that charges were filed.
“When you have a police officer who comes to court and lies under oath . . . how much confidence can you have that this is somebody who should be wearing a badge and carrying a gun?” Acevedo said.
All three officers were charged with conspiracy. Ortiz, a nine-year veteran, also faces one count of perjury. Amio, who joined the department in 2002, is charged with two counts of perjury. Both are on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation.
Samuel, who joined the LAPD in 2002 and left for the Chino Police Department in 2008, faces four counts of perjury. He was fired while on probation in Chino two weeks after The Times reported on Alarcon’s case.
The FBI also launched an investigation into the allegations last year.