By Ralph Cipriano
On April 10, 2012, a squad of Philadelphia narcotics officers pulled over a suspected drug dealer.
Unbeknownst to the cops, the drug dealer was an undercover FBI agent driving around with $8,600 in cash. The feds were hoping that the Philly narcs would search his car and steal the money but it never happened.
"The sting exploded in their face," defense lawyer Jeffrey Miller told U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, because the narcs turned over every cent.
Miller represents former Police Officer Thomas Liciardello, the man the feds say was the alleged ringleader of a band of six rogue cops. The rogue cops, the feds say, stole more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and personal property from drug dealers while allegedly beating and kidnapping them, and falsifying police records to cover it up.
At a pre-trial conference, Miller told the judge that he and five other defense lawyers in the case scheduled to begin later this month want the feds to play that undercover video for the jury, so they can see how the sting went south.
"We want the evidence in," Miller told the judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek responded that the government planned to play the undercover video as evidence because it showed the narcs operated outside the law.
"This did not blow up in the face of the government," the prosecutor told the judge. Instead, Wzorek asserted that the video shows the cops drove the suspected drug dealer to an isolated spot. And then they searched the car even though the driver didn't consent to it, and even though the cops didn't have a search warrant.
"I think the government is playing a chess game," Miller responded, to cover for the sting that blew up in their faces. The narcotics officers didn't need the suspected drug dealer's permission to search his car, Miller said. They already had probable cause in the form of a tip from an informant. The narcs also didn't need a search warrant.
Since both sides professed that they wanted the undercover video admitted as evidence, Judge Robreno had an easy decision to make. He ruled that the undercover video would be admitted as evidence.
The next item on the list of pre-trial issues was defense lawyer Miller's complaint that his client is not being allowed to prepare for trial.
Liciardello has been held without bail for six months in the SHU, or Special Housing Unit, AKA "the hole." Meanwhile, the other five defendants have been out on bail and are busy preparing for their trial that's scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 16.
Miller told the judge that his client has been unable until recently to review some 70,000 pages of documents turned over by the government during discovery.
But last week, Miller said, the government turned over "an avalanche of discovery" that amounted to some 20,000 additional pages of documents. And Liciardello hasn't seen a page of it.
The problem, Miller said, is that Liciardello is being held on a floor in the SHU that houses some 75 prisoners and has only two computers. The only solution, Miller told the judge, is to give Liciardello a personal laptop and computer so he can review the documents in his cell, where he spends at least 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, for his own protection.
Wzorek, however, told the judge that the government would oppose Miller's motion because the Bureau of Prisons has a policy that prohibits prisoners from having their own personal computers.
The judge asked if Miller could simply print out all the documents and give them to his client.
Miller, however, said that he wasn't allowed to bring in large amounts of documents into the prison. He said that with 90,000 pages of documents in the case, his client needs them stored on a computer so he can "pick and choose" what to print out, namely the documents that matter most.
"What's the rationale" for the policy against personal computers, the judge asked the prosecutor.
"I don't understand it," the prosecutor admitted.
The judge decided he would ask a federal magistrate overseeing the case to meet with Miller and the BOP to see if the issue could be resolved.
"But we're running out of time, Your Honor," Miller protested.
Judge Robreno didn't seem too concerned. "Let's move on," he told the defense lawyer.
Michael J. Diamondstein, the defense lawyer who represents former Officer Jonathan Speiser, objected to a government proposal to call as rebuttal witnesses defense lawyers who represented the drug dealers who are the alleged victims in the case.
Some of his brethren in the defense bar, Diamondstein told the judge, "make a career out of suing police officers." If we're going to bring in lawyers to back up witness testimony, Diamonstein told the judge, "It opens up a Pandora's box."
If there are witness statements that the drug dealers made to their lawyers, those statements "should be turned over to us now," argued defense lawyer Jack McMahon, who represents former Officer Brian Reynolds.
"How can we prepare for trial" without seeing the statements the drug dealers made to their lawyers, McMahon told the judge. "It's not fair, it's not right."
The government, Miller protested to the judge, "in the top of the ninth inning" has hit us with "a bombshell."
One of the defense lawyers who might be called as a witness, McMahon said, was Brian McMonagle, who has represented one of the accused police officers previously. That could pose all kinds of conflicts.
The judge decided that if the government calls defense lawyers as rebuttal witnesses, he would handle the issue on a motion by motion basis.
When McMahon protested, the judge told him, "That's my ruling."
In another embarrassment to the feds, the judge today dismissed at the request of the prosecutor two of the 26 charges in the indictment of the officers for supposedly beating Warren Layre. The indictment alleged that the rogue cops forced their way into Layre's store, kicked him in the groin, knocked his teeth out and hit him over the head with a steel bar before stealing $30,000.
But Layre got busted on Feb. 25th along with 31 others as part of a heroin and meth trafficking ring in Montgomery County. That prompted the feds to drop Layre from the case against the narcotics cops. Layre had also filed a civil suit against the cops that's been put on hold pending the resolution of the criminal case.