ONE AFTER the other, 41 drug cases based on police work by narcotics officers that the District Attorney's Office will no longer use as witnesses were dismissed Wednesday.
All the defendants had been in custody awaiting trial when Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper told their attorneys that the D.A.'s office was dropping charges.
The defendants will be freed as long as they have no other outstanding charges unrelated to their arrests by this aggressive squad in the Narcotics Field Unit.
The dismissals came a week after District Attorney Seth Williams told Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in a letter that six officers would no longer be called to testify in drug cases and that they had lost their credibility.
As a result, Ramsey transferred Officers Perry Betts, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Thomas Liciardello, Brian Speiser and Lt. Robert Otto out of narcotics.
At least 16 additional drug cases linked to this squad also have been dismissed.
"This office identified defendants who were in custody on drug related charges where the testimony of certain narcotics officers was necessary for prosecution," D.A. spokesperson Tasha Jamerson said in a statement. "In the exercise of prosecutorial discretion," those cases were dismissed.
The credibility problem could affect - and possibly lead to the dismissal of - hundreds of cases. Defense lawyers and public defenders plan to petition the court to reopen cases of convicted drug dealers so that some who are serving time based on these officers' testimony could be freed.
"The D.A.'s office has focused, appropriately so, on getting people out of jail who should not be in jail," said Bradley S. Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "Now it's a question of whether they agree to go back in time."
But Wednesday, defendants like Robert Teague could already celebrate. Teague is off the hook for an Oct, 3, 2010 drug-possession arrest that occurred when Reynolds went into his North Philly apartment to nab him for a house-arrest violation.
While in the apartment, Reynolds looked around without a search warrant and found crack cocaine, which could have belonged to any of four people who lived there, Teague's attorney, Douglas Dolfman, said.
"I think this is opening up a can of worms for the city and the police - there's going to be a lot of lawsuits and it's going to cost the city a lot of money," Dolfman said. "They have thousands of cases, these officers . . . This is a volcano that's going to take a long time to stop erupting."
For years, the officers have been targets of numerous federal lawsuits - many of which the city settled - and dozens of police Internal Affairs complaints. Allegations included that they fabricated evidence, planted drugs, stole money and used excessive force.
The officers have not responded to media requests for comment, but the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, has defended the officers, saying the accusations are unfounded, and criticized Williams' move.
Defense attorneys, however, praised the D.A.
"So many times the system allows testimony to come in that is patently false," said defense lawyer Jack McMahon. "It's taken with a wink and a nod, judges believe it and the officers get emboldened," he added.
"Seth Williams and his office did not look the other way this time. That's a feather in his cap."