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Northeast drug bust was tipping point in narcotics officers' fall from grace

The undercover drug buy that began on Dungan Road in Northeast Philadelphia in January was, in many ways, routine work for the officers assigned to the Narcotics Field Unit South, one of the most aggressive in the city.

Members of the Narcotics Field Unit South make an arrest in February 2012.
Members of the Narcotics Field Unit South make an arrest in February 2012.Read more

The undercover drug buy that began on Dungan Road in Northeast Philadelphia in January was, in many ways, routine work for the officers assigned to the Narcotics Field Unit South, one of the most aggressive in the city.

Their eventual target was Mohhamed Samhan, a 27-year-old suspected drug dealer from Los Angeles. But the drug buy didn't go as planned - something spooked Samhan. He fled to a stash house in Lower Moreland, Montgomery County, where the officers quickly tracked him down.

The bust took 54 pounds of high-grade marijuana, valued at $486,000, off the streets. And in short order, the undercover officers also arrested eight other alleged drug dealers, according to court records.

The impressive haul was in line with the undercover unit's performance. In 2011, the Narcotics Field Unit South seized 357 guns, $7 million in drugs, and $1.8 million in cash, according to the unit's own statistics.

The officers who took part in Samhan's arrest have been involved in hundreds of cases dating to 2007, the majority the result of undercover operations. But their success on the streets has come at a considerable cost, according to a review of court records and interviews with federal officials, defense attorneys, and others in the legal community.

The city has settled at least seven lawsuits against three of the officers involved in Samhan's arrest that alleged false arrest or illegal searches. Such settlements are routine and carry no judgment of guilt.

But three weeks ago, six members of the unit were stripped of their credibility when District Attorney Seth Williams informed Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey they would no longer be called to testify in drug cases. Williams has offered no explanation for his decision.

Since then, dozens of cases have been dismissed, hundreds more could be overturned, and civil lawsuits loom.

The unraveling of cases has put the officers' sometimes-controversial record in a new light. Their street tactics for years have been scrutinized by police Internal Affairs investigators. Almost all complaints were found to be unsubstantiated.

But the aggressive practices of two of the officers apparently prompted an inquiry by the FBI that began in 2005 and ended with no charges being filed, according to several officials and court records.

Federal prosecutors have for years refused to take cases involving some of the six officers, according to law enforcement officials - a tacit acknowledgment that the history of complaints and investigations undermines their credibility in court.

Aside from administrative findings in two Internal Affairs complaints, no charges have ever been filed against the officers. They continued their undercover work, adding scores of drug cases to the criminal docket even though their viability as crucial witnesses for the prosecution was potentially compromised by their history.

The Samhan case would prove their undoing.

$49,000 allegedly stolen

Held on $5 million bail, the accused drug dealer from Los Angeles decided to cooperate. He named other suppliers, according to a lawyer representing him at the time, Lawrence Krasner.

Samhan's information led to the arrest on Jan. 17 of Kit Poon, 42, another dealer from California who was operating out of a house on Tyson Avenue, near Tacony Creek. A raid recovered more bundles of marijuana.

A subsequent operation at a house on Unruh Street that same day seized drugs worth an estimated $1.4 million, according to court records.

Poon was held on $2 million bail and put in a cell with Samhan, where they talked about their arrests. Soon Samhan offered a revelation: Poon, he told prosecutors, had claimed the narcotics officers stole about $49,000 from him, according to Samhan's statement.

These strands converged at a court hearing on Oct. 16, with devastating consequences for hundreds of cases involving the six officers.

Krasner, who represented one of suspects arrested with Poon, announced in court that the officers were stealing from dealers.

"There was information about the theft of a lot of money, maybe $49,000, during the bust of the drug house," Krasner told Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden. Krasner also said he had information from law enforcement officials that the officers "engaged in a pattern of theft and other falsification during drug arrests."

It's unclear whether the allegations resulted in an investigation. Hayden ordered the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to provide all information it had on the officers involved.

Seven weeks later, on Dec. 3, Williams notified Ramsey that prosecutors would no longer accept drug cases from the officers.

The impact was immediate. Ramsey transferred the officers to lower-profile jobs. Reassigned were Thomas Liciardello, on the narcotics force since 2000; Brian Reynolds, who joined in 1999; Brian Speiser, a member since 2007; Michael Spicer, who joined in 2000; Perry Betts, a unit member since 1999; and Lt. Robert Otto, who has commanded the unit since 2002.

None of the officers were made available by the department for comment. Police declined to comment, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, defended the officers and expressed outrage that Williams had them reassigned without explanation. Williams, McNesby said, destroyed the careers and reputations of the officers.

"If the D.A.'s Office has something on them, arrest them and then let's move forward," McNesby said. "I've never seen anything like this."

McNesby blamed the fallout on tension between the District Attorney's Office and police officers over how best to prosecute drug cases. Police officials, speaking on the condition they not be named, said the department and the District Attorney's Office had clashed over how much control each agency should have in negotiating deals.

Supporters of the officers said one of them was used by the district attorney as an expert witness in other drug cases and to help train prosecutors.

But several sources in the criminal justice system who have had contact with the officers said their tactics raised concerns. Too often, they said, the officers acted as curbside prosecutors, cutting deals with informants and circumventing department rules regarding confidential informants.

The history of complaints, documented in numerous lawsuits and Internal Affairs investigations, may have forced the district attorney's hand once Krasner raised the issue in court. The fact that federal prosecutors had blacklisted the officers further complicated matters since that, too, would likely be revealed.

The district attorney's decision has so far resulted in the withdrawal of charges in at least 68 cases. The six officers together were involved in more than 2,000 arrests during their years on the street, raising the possibility that scores more will be challenged.

"A veritable legal tsunami is about to descend," said defense attorney Christopher Warren, who handles drug cases at the state and federal levels. "We've got untold numbers of people sitting in jail . . . based on the work of these officers."

Litany of accusations

Police officers are often the only witnesses in narcotics cases. As a result, a suspected drug dealer's only defense can be to claim the officers are lying or worse.

Narcotics officers are also sued more frequently than police in other units, in part because of their high number of arrests. Indeed, two of the officers who were transferred once sued a lawyer for filing frivolous lawsuits against them. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

The civil suits filed against some of the officers in the narcotics unit over the years provide a litany of accusations, many involving illegal searches.

McNesby, president of the police union, said the accusations were both predictable and false.

"Narcotics officers are dealing with the scum of the earth, people who will sell their souls to get what they need or fabricate whatever they need to say," he said.

In January 2005, however, the accusations reached a new level. William Cannon, an attorney representing an accused drug dealer, wrote a letter to then-U.S. Attorney Robert Reed in advance of a meeting to be held at the Public Defender's Office.

Cannon said he and other public defenders had seen "irregular practices, indeed unlawful practices, on the part of [Narcotics Field Unit] members, principally Police Officers Reynolds and Liciardello," according to the letter. The two, Cannon wrote, "create probable cause to search citizens' homes with practiced regularity."

In an attached memo, Cannon questioned the evidence the officers used to obtain search warrants, citing similar or identical patterns of evidence.

Cannon also wrote that the city had settled lawsuits filed against the officers, all involving problems with search warrants, "rather than leave a determination of the credibility of Officers' Reynolds and Liciardello to a federal jury."

Records show the FBI at one point investigated Liciardello and Reynolds. Cannon, in another letter to U.S. Attorney Reed, asked that a deadline be given to the FBI agent conducting the investigation. Months later, also in 2005, Internal Affairs investigators concluded that Liciardello had illegally searched a house - the second such finding against him.

After Ramsey was named commissioner in 2008, he learned that at least one of the officers in the unit had been the target of a federal investigation but that no charges had been filed, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the probe.

It was about that time, according to several officials familiar with the events, that federal prosecutors apparently decided not to take on cases involving some officers in the unit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas R. Perricone, chief of the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs unit, said he did not recall any federal prosecution within the last "couple of years" that involved any of the six officers.

The extent to which frontline prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office knew about the federal, if informal, blacklisting is unknown.

Lynne M. Abraham, who served as district attorney for almost 19 years before stepping down in January 2010, said she was never told that the officers in the unit could not testify in federal cases.

"To my knowledge, no such information . . . was ever known by, or conveyed to, me," Abraham said in an e-mail. "This is information which would have been conveyed directly to me by the federal authorities, if such were the case, and would have resulted in immediate appropriate action."

Two houses searched

The undercover operation that led to the stakeout of Samhan produced multiple defendants. It also led to the search of two houses in Northeast Philadelphia.

Several police officials, speaking on condition they not be named, said the narcotics officers may have arrested suspects who in turn were under federal investigation.

Court testimony provides a clue to what may have happened. In one case, Liciardello testified that his partner in the unit, Reynolds, obtained the warrant to search two houses related to the Samhan arrest.

Liciardello and Reynolds together have been the subject of 14 complaints filed with Internal Affairs, alleging illegal searches or false arrests, according to documents.

Krasner, the defense attorney whose request in court set in motion the unraveling of dozens of criminal cases, said there may have been an issue with a warrant in the search of the Lower Moreland stash house.

Whether that had a bearing on the case against Samhan is unknown.

But on April 9, three months after his arrest, charges were withdrawn.