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Polanski's attorneys may have ignited arrest fuse

In court filings this summer, they said the L.A. County district attorney's office had made no effort to arrest the fugitive filmmaker. Sources say the allegations caught officials' attention.

September 29, 2009|Harriet Ryan and Richard Winton

Roman Polanski's attorneys helped provoke his arrest by complaining to an appellate court this summer that Los Angeles County prosecutors had made no real effort to capture the filmmaker in his three decades as a fugitive, two law enforcement sources familiar with the case told The Times.

The accusation that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was not serious about extraditing Polanski to facing sentencing in a child sex case he fled in 1978 was a minor point in two lengthy July court filings by the director's attorneys.

But the charge caught the attention of prosecutors, who had made several attempts to apprehend Polanski over the years.

Swiss officials detained the 76-year-old Saturday as he arrived to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.

The arrest prompted protests from officials in France, Poland and elsewhere in Europe on Monday, with calls that Swiss authorities allow Polanski to be released on bail. Polanski's attorneys announced that the Academy Award-winning director would wage a vigorous legal fight in Swiss courts against extradition to the United States.

There have been persistent questions about why authorities arrested Polanski now given that the director has routinely traveled throughout Europe, including Switzerland, without incident.

Based in Paris, he spent long stretches in Berlin and Prague filming movies, oversaw theater productions in Vienna and skied at his chalet in Gstaad.

"He's one of the most visible public figures in Europe. When he's doing an opera in Vienna -- where he's been on and off for the past 10 years -- it's in the news," said Jeff Berg, his agent. "This is not the case of someone being one step ahead of the law."

But what appears to have set the trip apart was its wide publicity in the weeks after Polanski's lawyers had accused prosecutors of inaction.

Details of the festival, such as the timing of Polanski's red carpet stroll and acceptance speech, were readily available online and movie industry publications had said he planned to attend, including a Daily Variety story in early August.

The month before, Polanski's attorneys had filed two separate documents with the California 2nd District Court of Appeal asking for a dismissal of all charges against the filmmaker in the alleged assault of a 13-year-old girl.

In both filings, the lawyers alleged that the district attorney's office in effect benefited from Polanski's absence, because as long as he remained a fugitive, officials could avoid answering allegations of prosecutorial and judicial wrongdoing in the original handling of the case.

"The district attorney's office, in the 30 years since Mr. Polanski left the jurisdiction, has not once sought to have him extradited. If it had, there would have been a hearing regarding misconduct in this case," wrote the attorneys, Chad Hummel, Douglas Dalton and Bart Dalton, in a July 7 filing.

Twenty days later, they filed a second document and raised the issue again in a footnote. "Combined with the fact that no effort has been made to extradite Mr. Polanski, the intent here is clear: Invoke a physical absence which they caused and deliberately perpetuate in order to preserve the unconstitutional status quo and never address the misconduct head on," the lawyers wrote.

The sources, who are familiar with the prosecution's case but spoke on condition that they not be named because the case was open, said the statements prompted the district attorney's office to look anew for an opportunity to seize Polanski. His appearance in Switzerland, where a 1995 agreement allows extradition to the United States, provided such a chance, the sources said.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office declined to comment on what role if any the court filings by Polanski's attorneys played in the arrest. But the office produced a list of eight instances since 1978 in which prosecutors took steps to apprehend Polanski.

"Those attempts were not successful. This attempt was," spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.

Some of the moves were bureaucratic -- the opening of a case file when authorities established that Polanski had taken up residence in France after his flight from L.A. in 1978. But most involved responding to reports of planned international trips by Polanski. Three months after the director became a fugitive, prosecutors learned that he was planning a trip to England and prepared an arrest warrant. It is unclear whether Polanski made the trip, but the warrant was never served.

In 1986, prosecutors consulted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about a possible visit to Canada by Polanski, but the trip never materialized. In 1994, they told the Justice Department that they were still interested in pursuing Polanski and submitted an arrest warrant request to France. His French citizenship has long protected him from extradition and it's unclear how French officials responded.

In 2005, Polanski traveled to Thailand and prosecutors alerted Interpol, but the director was not arrested. In 2007, prosecutors tried to arrange his arrest during a trip to Israel, but authorities there requested additional information and the director left the country in the interim.

The final date on the list, Sept. 22, was the day prosecutors prepared the provisional warrant for Polanski's arrest en route to the film festival.

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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