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Drug charge dropped in hit-and-run case scrutinized after LAPD body cam footage became public

Police body camera video aired by a Los Angeles television station showed a police officer pick up a small bag of drugs and place it in a driver’s wallet — a move that raised questions about the officer’s conduct and prompted an internal investigati

The police body camera footage, aired by a Los Angeles television station, turned a spotlight on an otherwise routine hit-and-run case.

The videos showed a police officer pick up a small bag of drugs and place it in the driver’s wallet — a move that raised questions about the officer’s conduct and prompted an internal investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department.

On Wednesday, the case came to a quiet conclusion in a Van Nuys courtroom, where the driver, Ronald Shields, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hit and run. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a drug possession charge, along with charges of felony hit and run and being a felon in possession of a firearm, which police found in the trunk of the 52-year-old’s car.

Judge Michael Kellogg then sentenced Shields to three years of summary probation.

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It is unclear what role the video played in the deal; the district attorney’s office declined to say. Shields’ attorney, however, said he thought the footage had a “very big bearing” on the outcome.

The attorney, Steve Levine, said the deal was a fair resolution to the case. His client panicked and left the scene of an accident, he said. But, he said, there were also “questionable tactics” by police.

“I think the D.A.’s office did the right thing,” he said.

In a statement, the district attorney’s office said that after reviewing the matter, it determined that “the facts and evidence in this case supported a misdemeanor conviction.”

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The case — and questions about just what the video depicted — became a media sensation amid a national debate about the use of police body cam video. The LAPD has never publicly released such footage, although the Police Commission, its civilian oversight panel, is drafting new rules that could bring more transparency.

In November, CBS Los Angeles aired footage from body cameras worn by LAPD officers at the scene that Levine argued at the time showed officers planting a bag of drugs on his client.

The video, which was also obtained by The Times, shows an officer pick up the bag from the street and place it in the wallet, though it is not clear where it originally came from.

Still, the move raised eyebrows within the LAPD, as did conflicting testimony in court from another officer whose account differed from what was seen in the video.

“It certainly asked questions that need to be answered,” Police Chief Charlie Beck said soon after the video aired. The department’s internal investigation is ongoing.

Bill Seki, an attorney representing two of the officers, denied that his clients acted inappropriately. Additional body camera footage that was later unearthed offered more clarity, he said, and shows the bag of drugs among a handful of items coming from Shields’ pocket. (The Times has not viewed that additional footage.)

The officer who placed the drugs in the wallet did so after the bag fell on the ground, Seki said, and was trying to make sure it didn’t get lost among other items collected at the scene.

“I don’t think there’s anything nefarious whatsoever,” Seki said. “It wasn’t something that was being hidden.”

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The union representing the LAPD’s rank and file also backed the officers, praising their arrest of a hit-and-run driver and recovery of an illegal gun. The union described the release of the video as a “circus sideshow.”

The allegations stem from a hit-and-run crash that occurred April 16 in Sun Valley.

The Times obtained a dozen body camera videos from various points of the encounter. The critical moments come as Officer Samuel Lee pats down Shields, who at the time was detained in handcuffs and standing next to his car.

One video shows Officer Andrew Gaxiola pick up Shields’ wallet, which is on a patch of grass near the curb. A small bag of what appears to be drugs can be seen in the street.

Gaxiola picks up the wallet as Lee appears to motion toward the ground. Gaxiola then picks up the bag. He catches Lee’s attention, then gestures as if putting the drugs in Shields’ wallet. He then appears to do so.

There is no sound with that portion of the footage, which appears to have been recorded before the officer turned his body camera on. At the time, LAPD body cameras were equipped with a buffering mode that allowed them to capture 30 seconds of video — but not audio — before the cameras were actually activated.

That buffer was extended to two minutes in November, the LAPD has said.

Later, Gaxiola can be heard telling other officers about the drugs.

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“Just to let you know, inside his wallet, he has a little bag of narco,” he tells two officers.

A police report from the incident, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, states that Lee found the drugs in Shields’ front pocket. Lee later testified in court that was where he found the drugs.

Times staff writer Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.

kate.mather@latimes.com

@katemather


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