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Party Line Allows Law to Reach Out and Bust Someone

February 07, 1988|ROBINA LUTHER | United Press International

The young prosecutor was in a Santa Monica restaurant when his beeper summoned him to a telephone. Moments later, he was talking on a pay phone in a three-way conversation with a judge and a police officer.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Nicholas Koumjian spent less than an hour on the phone. When he hung up, the police officer in South Pasadena had a warrant from the judge to search a house for drugs.

Koumjian, 31, laughed as he recalled standing outside the restaurant on his day off, deeply involved in the type of telephone conversation that has become an important weapon to counter the increasingly sophisticated methods of drug dealers.

"This guy came up to use the phone next to me while I was doing the warrant, and I was saying things like, 'Officer, will you tell his honor why you think there's cocaine at the location,' " Koumjian said. "The guy must have been wondering what was going on with this guy standing here in his blue jeans at a pay phone."

Not Unusual

The scenario is not that unusual. Police, prosecutors and judges get together on a party line six or eight times a month to discuss telephone search warrants.

More often than not, the calls come in the middle of the night or on weekends, while officers are in the middle of a drug bust and need immediate permission to search other homes or businesses related to the investigation.

Because police cannot predict where they will need to search for suspects, drugs or stolen property, they often cannot prepare search warrants ahead of time. When the time comes to ask for a search warrant, they have to find a judge who will review the evidence and decide immediately whether they should be allowed to conduct the search.

Under normal conditions, writing up a search warrant and an affidavit that justifies the need to conduct a search can take several hours.

Time-Saving Device

"When we would hand-type search warrants, it would take five hours. Now we can do it in 10 minutes" using the telephone, said Glendale Police Capt. Brook McMahon, one of the first investigators in the county to begin using telephone search warrants regularly.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Horan recalled a 1,000-pound cocaine bust in San Dimas where officers found "coke stacked everywhere." The investigators called a judge from the house to get a search warrant, he said.

"You can't get much better probable cause," Horan said. "You ask, 'Judge we think there's cocaine in the house, can we seize it?' and we're sitting there looking at it."

Police and prosecutors say the time they save in getting warrants by telephone helps them search homes before the suspects get rid of drugs or other vital evidence.

"Speed becomes the essence because of the modern communications all the drug dealers have," Deputy Dist. Atty. Curtis Hazell said. Drug couriers usually carry beepers and have mobile phones so they can inform the ringleaders of an impending bust and the leaders can get rid of evidence, he said.

Warrants Essential

In cases where simultaneous drug busts are made in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, telephone search warrants are essential, Hazell said.

To get a telephone search warrant, police generally discuss the evidence with a deputy district attorney and then contact a judge. During the telephone conversation--which is tape-recorded--the judge will "swear in" the officer, who explains why police believe that they have good reason to search a location.

Judges usually ask several questions, then approve or deny the search warrant. If they approve it, the officer signs the judge's name to the document. After the tape is transcribed several days later, the judge reads the transcript and signs the warrant.

The use of telephone search warrants has blossomed from one or two a month three years ago to as many as 10 a month now, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Chrystie, who teaches prosecutors how to use them.

Law is 'Favorable'

"The law is very favorable to search warrants," Chrystie said. Many police departments used to forgo search warrants, but now officers routinely get prior permission to search, he said. The evidence they find when armed with a search warrant is almost always usable.

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