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Police Abandon Drug-Making Sting Operation

August 23, 1995|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A controversial undercover operation in which authorities manufactured crack cocaine to snare drug buyers on Santa Ana streets has been quietly shelved in the face of a key judge's opposition and other roadblocks, and is now probably gone for good, police said Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, a staunch opponent of the program, has refused since January to grant police a court order enabling them to turn powder cocaine into the rock form used in the reverse stings against small-time buyers.

The supply of rock cocaine used by police ran out and the Orange County Sheriff's Department's Crime Lab, where the crack was made, declined to manufacture more, Santa Ana Police Capt. Bruce Carlson said.

"The program has basically been discontinued," Carlson said. And he said the 18-month-long program, first made public in a report in The Times last fall, is unlikely to reappear.

"The [district attorney's] office and the Santa Ana Police Department have no intention of starting this thing up," Carlson said.

Carter made known his opposition to the operation days after he took over in January as head of the panel of Superior Court judges who hear criminal cases. He wrote a letter critical of the program to district attorney's officials, in effect rescinding previous court orders allowing police to make the drug for the sting operation, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Carl W. Armbrust, who heads the office's narcotics enforcement unit.

Without such an order, police have sidelined a program that they called an effective weapon against drug sales but that critics tagged a reckless and possibly illegal approach.

"I don't think it was needed in the beginning," said county Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler. "It was a twisted way to go about cleaning the streets of people who use drugs."

Carter lambasted the program last week during a court hearing for one of the more than 400 people arrested during operations that began in July, 1993.

"If the taxpayers want to spend their money manufacturing rock cocaine, for the life of me I don't understand that," Carter said during a hearing for defendant Robert Ramos, 32. "I think there are a lot of good programs that can take place without law enforcement having manufactured rock cocaine."

Carter stopped short of throwing out the Ramos conviction, ruling that police had acted properly by obtaining a court order for the operation.

Carter, who postponed the sentencing until Sept. 15, declined to comment Tuesday because the case is still before him.

Almost all of the 400-plus cases ended in plea agreements at the Municipal Court level without a legal fight, but a handful of cases have made it to Superior Court. Ramos, the defendant before Carter, was convicted in December. One other defendant was acquitted and two other cases ended in pleas, Armbrust said. One case is still pending in Municipal Court in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana authorities, seeking to clean up some of the most stubbornly drug-plagued neighborhoods in Orange County, defended the crack-making strategy as a way to target the outsiders who cruise to buy drugs and also contribute to other crimes.

Police said that making the drugs themselves was safer than using seized drugs that might be impure and dangerous if swallowed by a suspect.

Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said the sweeps have received strong backing in neighborhoods where they were tried--including undercover sales around the corner from a junior high school--and helped reduce crimes such as robberies that tend to occur in drug markets.

"I would challenge anybody that doesn't like it to go out to the community themselves and hear what they say," Walters said Tuesday.

"Law enforcement is used to setbacks. We have case decisions that go against us all the time," Carlson said. "We're continually having to adapt and respect the court."

Armbrust said he doubts that a court order is needed for police to sell seized crack--or even to manufacture it for sale--as part of a sting. He said authorities got such an order before as a "courtesy."

But he conceded that few cities are now likely to try out the controversial program. And authorities said Carter's public criticisms mean it is now unlikely the defendants would plead guilty without a legal fight.

"The upshot is that we're not doing anything right now," Armbrust said. "The program is either dead or certainly on hold."

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