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Judge sets aside drug conviction

Reputed drug dealer's sentence is tossed after Los Angeles County prosecutors say arrest report was falsified.

November 21, 2008|Jack Leonard | Leonard is a Times staff writer.

A reputed drug dealer's five-year prison sentence has been overturned and the charges dismissed after Los Angeles County prosecutors conceded this week that police included false information in an arrest report to protect the identity of a confidential informant.

The inaccuracies were discovered after a defense attorney for Michael Edward Baker found a sworn declaration by a federal agent that sharply contradicted the version of Baker's arrest given by a Torrance officer who had been accused several times in the past of lying under oath. The misleading account was also contained in a document provided by a veteran detective of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Torrance officers contend that they happened upon Baker while on patrol last year near a 7-Eleven store and noticed that he matched the description of a suspect in a robbery at the store earlier in the day. They said they stopped him, found PCP in his car and arrested him on drug charges.

But according to the federal agent, Torrance police set up Baker. The agent -- who was part of a task force investigating Baker -- said that Torrance police used one of his informants to call Baker and arrange a drug deal near the 7-Eleven.

On Wednesday afternoon, Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Goodwin told a Superior Court judge that there was overwhelming evidence that Baker was guilty. Nevertheless, he said the drug sales case should be thrown out.

"In what appears to have been an attempt to protect and shield a confidential informant, there were certain statements made in a police report that weren't accurate," Goodwin told the judge.

Judge Craig J. Mitchell set aside Baker's conviction and dismissed the drug sales charges. He did the same for Latera Odom, who was arrested with Baker and sentenced last year to 67 days in jail and three years' probation.

Baker's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Randall Rich, said the officers' tactic in using the informant to set up an arrest was perfectly legal. But he accused officers of lying to protect the informant's identity and said that such conduct was illegal.

"Officers lied, filed false reports and covered for each other," Rich said. "Had the police been honest about what they did, Mr. Baker would likely have been convicted and punished."

Goodwin declined to comment on the case. A district attorney's spokeswoman said the office had not decided on whether to review the officers' conduct for possible criminal charges.

Baker is still facing trial on a federal grand jury indictment accusing him of conspiracy and distributing drugs. But the dismissal of his state case would significantly reduce the amount of prison time he could face if convicted in his pending trial, said his federal defense attorney, Anthony M. Solis. The trial is set to begin Jan. 27.

Federal authorities accuse Baker, 33, of working as the front man for a sophisticated L.A.-based drug ring run by the Grape Street Crips gang, which they say manufactured large quantities of PCP and sold the drug across the country.

According to court records, federal agents and local law enforcement agencies began investigating the drug ring in 2005. Key to the probe was an unidentified informant, who purchased drugs at Baker's Watts home under the direction of agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In December 2006, the informant allegedly paid Baker $10,000 in exchange for a gallon of PCP.

The informant became concerned that Baker suspected he was working with law enforcement, records show. Then came Baker's April 14, 2007, arrest.

The Torrance police report, written by Officer Rehan Nazir, made no mention of an informant setting up the drug deal with Baker.

But in an affidavit in the federal case, DEA Special Agent Hector Zapata later wrote that the informant had been stopped by Torrance police earlier that day and had set up Baker to avoid his own arrest "without the knowledge or approval of FBI or DEA agents involved in this investigation." Baker's arrest, Zapata wrote, had almost certainly blown the informant's cover. He added that steps were being taken to relocate the informant.

Baker's attorney learned of the affidavit this year after it was unsealed by a federal court. Rich filed a writ with the state court accusing Nazir of writing a false police report, and he complained that the failure to mention the informant had prevented Baker from exploring alternative defenses before pleading last year.

In addition, Rich accused Los Angeles Police Det. Frank J. Lyga of writing a false report in the case. Lyga, a member of a Southern California multiagency task force, was called to the arrest scene to remove the potentially hazardous PCP. Court records show that he had been working on the federal investigation of Baker. His report does not mention the informant.

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