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Philly paying millions to resolve allegations of police misconduct

The City of Philadelphia has quietly begun settling lawsuits against onetime members of an infamous police narcotics unit. So far, more than $2 million has been paid to resolve about 75 cases.

Marcia Hintz was working a full-time job caring for mentally challenged adults, raising a grandchild, and providing medical assistance to her longtime companion when members of a Philadelphia police narcotics squad busted into her Mayfair home in 2006 and arrested her for selling drugs.

Roger High, on the other hand, already had a lengthy criminal record and was out on bail awaiting trial on drug charges when that same narcotics squad picked him up that year on a new case.

Hintz and High would seem to have little in common, but their stories intersected three years ago when the courts began overturning convictions built by the squad amid accusations of fabricated evidence, illegal searches, and other misconduct.

And they converged again in recent months, when each received payouts from the City of Philadelphia.

Their checks — High for $15,000, Hintz for 40 times as much — come as the city has quietly begun settling the more than 300 lawsuits against onetime members of that infamous narcotics squad. And they are just a part of what could be an onslaught of payments by the city to resolve police misconduct lawsuits, according to interviews and an Inquirer and Daily News review of court records and financial documents.

The price tag for just three high-profile examples could approach $24 million, according to a city bond document — up to $8 million for the narcotics squad cases, and a combined $16 million for two unrelated claims of wrongful murder convictions. The murder case lawsuits may take months or years to resolve, but the city has already paid more than $2 million to settle 75 cases against the narcotics officers.

All of that comes on top of the $9 million typically paid each year to settle dozens of less publicized civil rights claims against the police.

The fact that three potentially costly examples of alleged police misconduct are cresting in court around the same time may be no more than a coincidence. But Alan Yatvin, liaison counsel for the dozens of lawyers representing hundreds of plaintiffs against the narcotics officers, contends those payouts are a consequence of years' worth of unchecked abuses.

"The real issue in this case was how the city, the police department responded," Yatvin said.

The District Attorney's Office agreed several years ago, when allegations against the squad began swirling in the news. Prosecutors have since thrown out 1,000 criminal convictions the officers helped build, with 240 or so still under review, according to Bradley Bridge, a public defender involved in the process.

Still, the city's decision to settle so many civil cases with five- and even six-figure payouts ultimately shouldered by taxpayers is complicated by one unique factor: Six of the officers were vindicated in a 2015 criminal trial that aired many of the same accusations against them, such as theft, beatings, and evidence-free raids.

And five of them  — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser — are back on the force.

Jack McMahon, who led their defense during the federal corruption trial, said the fact the city was settling cases against them was "disgraceful" and a way for "lying drug dealers" to make an easy buck. The jury heard similar allegations of wrongdoing for seven weeks, he said, yet ultimately sided with the officers on every count.

"The truth is, they didn't do anything wrong," said McMahon. "For [the city] to just cave in and settle like that, I just don't get it. I think they're just cowards, simple as that."

But the threshold for proving a civil claim falls below the standard for guilt in a criminal case. And paying to resolve such complaints — even questionable ones — can be cheaper than the time, effort, and legal fees required to litigate them, while also providing closure to plaintiffs without forcing them to rehash their experience in court.

Through a spokesman, city officials declined interview requests to discuss the wave of settlements. In a statement, spokesman Mike Dunn said only that the Law Department "has evaluated the facts and circumstances of each case before making a settlement decision."

Long prison terms

The largest narcotics-related settlement payment by far, $625,000, was awarded to Hintz. In her lawsuit, the onetime mental health aide, now 55, said Liciardello and six other officers fabricated evidence to put her behind bars.

Their case, according to Hintz's complaint, included false testimony by Liciardello that Hintz had sold Xanax pills to an undercover informant from her Mayfair home in September 2006. Hintz, in an interview this month, said the pills had been prescribed to her longtime companion to treat his renal failure.

Two years after her arrest, Hintz opted for a trial before a judge. Liciardello testified for prosecutors; she took the stand in her own defense.

"But he was a cop," Hintz said, tearfully recalling the trial as she sat at her dining-room table. "Who are you going to believe?"

The judge found her guilty, then sentenced Hintz — whose only previous conviction was decades earlier in a welfare fraud case — to five to 10 years in prison.

She spent three years and two months behind bars before being paroled to a halfway house, according to her lawsuit.

In 2012, the DA's Office announced it would no longer prosecute cases brought by the officers due to concerns about the allegations against them. Bridge, the public defender, filed more than 1,000 petitions to overturn convictions connected to the squad. And with no objection from prosecutors, old cases began being thrown out by the dozen.

Hintz's case was eventually among them. But by that point, she'd been released from prison.

While grateful for the settlement and the retroactive vindication, nothing, she said, can change the squad's impact on her life.

"It's a lot of time they took from me," she said. "And you can't get that back."

Now, other plaintiffs are looking at Hintz's $625,000 payout as a benchmark.

Among them is Kareem Torain.

He was charged in January 2001 after Reynolds, Jeffrey Walker, and other officers searched a rooming house in Overbrook and said they found drugs, according to his complaint. Torain did not live there, but he had a key and had been seen entering and leaving the building.

Torain — who had previous convictions for robbery, kidnapping, and drug possession — was offered a deal: three to six years in prison in return for a guilty plea. He rejected it, figuring he'd be acquitted.

Instead, a judge convicted him at a bench trial and sentenced him to 12½ to 25 years in prison. In the end, he served 13 years inside.

"I lost so much from being incarcerated," Torain said in an interview this month, including the ability to go to his brother's funeral.

His conviction was tossed in 2014. And last year, Walker — the lone narcotics officer to plead guilty to corruption charges — admitted during a deposition for Torain's case that the warrant leading to his arrest was based on fabricated evidence, and that the drugs and guns were planted there.

Torain's lawyer, Michael Pileggi, said he has dozens of clients who were arrested by the squad and cumulatively served 110 years in prison. It's unclear how much these cases might be worth, but Pileggi notes that Hintz received about $380 per day incarcerated.

"Why would my client consider anything less?" he said.

By that formula, Torain would be due about $1.8 million.

Smaller paydays

Not all complaints related to the narcotics squad involve lengthy prison stays.

Most settlements so far have ranged from $1,500 to $85,000, according to city records. Payouts varied based on factors including the strength of the plaintiffs' allegations, the evidence available to support their claims, and the consequences suffered as a result of the officers' alleged conduct.

Robert J. Levant, who, along with cocounsel Mark Tanner, represented Hintz, said the settlement costs so far appear to be a bargain for the city. Staging dozens of individual trials could be much more expensive.

But Yatvin said the lower-value cases have settled first, with higher-priced demands or more contentious suits likely to require more negotiations or even trials.

Rasheed Phillips, 33, said he was offered $20,000 to settle his case — barely enough to cover the debt he incurred from attending community college, where he said his career path was derailed when Walker and Spicer arrested him on bogus drug charges in 2007.

To avoid prison, Phillips said, he took a plea deal. He served six months' house arrest and four years' probation, but the felony conviction disqualified him from a radiology program, throwing his life off track.

"They stole my future, the person I was," Phillips said last month. "And then they try to rectify the situation by offering me some money that doesn't even cover my student loans?"

He said he plans to take his case to trial.

The details of the claims made against the squad range from dark comedy to horror, with accusations of physical abuse, robbery, and rampant lawbreaking by police. More than 20 people took the stand to accuse the officers of such misconduct during their criminal trial.

By settling the civil cases, however, neither side needs to prove details in court.

Guy Sciolla, a lawyer who's represented several claimants, said: "When you have a question hanging over the activities of a particular squad, even those that were actually involved in criminal conduct get the benefit of the doubt."

Roger High may be one of those plaintiffs.

He had a long arrest record before Liciardello and others arrested him on drug charges in 2006. High pleaded guilty in that case and was sentenced to up to three years in prison, according to his complaint.

Since his release, High has twice been accused of breaking into the homes of his ex-girlfriends — including in August, when he was arrested and charged with assaulting and robbing a woman inside her Olney home.

That case was dismissed on Oct. 19, when witnesses didn't show up in court to testify.

That same day, the city cut High a check for $15,000 to settle his lawsuit against Liciardello.

More settlements to come

Dunn, the city spokesman, said the city "has instituted substantive reforms that we believe will, going forward, significantly decrease the likelihood" of police misconduct and the lawsuits that follow.

They include new police policies regarding the use of force; funding the purchase of additional police body cameras; reducing the use of so-called stop-and-frisk practices; and adding money and a new executive director to the Police Advisory Commission, a city watchdog agency.

Commissioner Richard Ross said the department has "systems in place to identify problems when they arise and address them."

Still, taxpayers will cover the cost of resolving the complaints. Dunn said the city's 2018 budget includes $44.9 million to cover liabilities resulting from lawsuits, which can include everything from police misconduct to flooding from a ruptured city pipe.

Other cities have shouldered similarly large costs from police-related cases: In the past several weeks, suits against officers in Chicago and Baltimore have ended with payouts exceeding $10 million.

And even with reforms, costly misconduct claims can emerge from decades-old arrests, as occurred in at least two pending Philadelphia cases.

Eugene Gilyard claims that city homicide detectives probing a 1995 killing failed to investigate alternative suspects and coerced key witnesses to identify him. Gilyard was freed in 2014, after 16 years in prison, when someone else confessed to committing the crime.

Anthony Wright, meanwhile, spent 25 years behind bars for a murder and rape conviction that was overturned in 2016, thanks to DNA evidence that suggested another man committed the crime. Jurors acquitted him at a retrial. In a lawsuit against the city, Wright claims detectives in 1991 coerced his confession and planted damaging evidence at his home.

Even when those cases end, however, others are bound to continue the cycle.

Another former narcotics officer, Stanley Davis, recently pleaded guilty to providing drugs to women in return for sexual favors last year — an admission that could inspire a wave of civil claims against him.

And Christopher Hulmes was fired in 2015 after he was arrested for perjuring himself in a drug case he'd helped to build.

Bridge, the public defender, said he has filed more than 500 petitions to reconsider criminal convictions involving Hulmes, and 21 people have filed civil lawsuits in federal court alleging that Hulmes lied about the evidence against them.

Four of those cases, according to court records, were filed this month.