DNA Evidence in 4 Drug Cases Refutes Officers

LAPD: Examination of saliva on rock cocaine allegedly spit out by suspects contradicts policemen’s testimony in arrests in Rampart, two other divisions.

By SCOTT GLOVER and MATT LAIT, Times Staff Writers

April 26, 2000

Bolstering allegations of widespread misconduct and corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department, DNA analysis in four different drug cases contradicts the testimony of officers who claimed they witnessed suspects spit rock cocaine out of their mouths.
The previously unpublicized cases, which involved arrests made in three LAPD divisions–Rampart, Southwest and Hollenbeck–strongly suggest that the officers filed false reports and perjured themselves in court in an effort to frame innocent people, according to interviews, court files and confidential documents obtained by The Times.
Three of the four cases have already been dismissed. The fourth is pending. At least two other cases have been thrown out of court because the officers involved were regarded as having credibility problems stemming from their part in cases in which the results of DNA tests have disproved their testimony.
Prosecutors assigned to the district attorney’s task force on police corruption are conducting a criminal investigation of at least two of the officers involved in the alleged frame-ups, according to internal district attorney’s documents.
Hiding rock cocaine in one’s mouth is a common practice among drug dealers and drug users, according to law enforcement experts. Sources close to the corruption investigation said investigators are concerned that some officers are using their knowledge of that practice to fabricate purported observations of suspects disposing of evidence and then to falsely arrest people. The falsity of such arrests can be established by DNA tests, which ought to detect a connection between a suspect and the saliva residue on any object they spat out, according to experts.
If the officers are not intentionally lying about their observations, sources say, then they are guilty of sloppy police work and committing inexcusable mistakes that could send defendants to prison for many years.
“These types of allegation are extremely troubling and will be thoroughly investigated,” said LAPD spokesman Cmdr. David J. Kalish.
All of the officers involved in these six cases remain on active duty and either could not be reached for comment or did not return phone calls.

2 Officers in Rampart Division
Four of the cases in question involved either David Vinton or Scott Voeltz, both of whom were assigned to the Rampart Division. The first case to come under fire resulted from the then-partners’ arrest of Raul Pacheco and Antonio Nunez on July 30, 1998.
Vinton testified in court that he and Voeltz were in an observation post on the fourth or fifth floor of an apartment building when they watched Pacheco and Nunez sell drugs to an unidentified customer. The customer handed money to Pacheco, Vinton testified. Pacheco motioned to Nunez, who cupped his hands over his mouth and spit something out, the officer alleged. Nunez handed the object to the buyer, who promptly walked away.
Vinton said the partners ran down the stairs and across the street to arrest Nunez and Pacheco. The officers recovered $154 from Pacheco. Nunez, Vinton said, spit a dozen pieces of crack cocaine onto the sidewalk.
When the case went to trial, Deputy Public Defender Marie Girolamo requested funds to have the drugs tested for the presence of DNA. The result: Nunez was scientifically excluded as a person who ever had the drugs in his mouth.
A Superior Court judge dismissed the case Nov. 24, 1998.
A source in the district attorney’s office said Vinton, who was insistent about his identification of Nunez during the preliminary hearing in the case, was mistaken. Pacheco, the source said, eventually admitted to having the drugs in his mouth.
The D.A.’s source said prosecutors were deeply troubled by Vinton’s willingness to make a positive ID that could have sent someone to prison when clearly he was not certain.
“It was extremely reckless,” the prosecutorial source said. “His attitude was so bad that quite frankly it was as if he were lying.”
Members of an LAPD internal disciplinary board found that the officers had made “an honest mistake” and issued them both written reprimands.
Another DNA test resulted in the dismissal of a second Vinton and Voeltz case, this one involving a Dec. 7, 1998, arrest. Again, the partners were watching drug sales from an observation post in the upper floors of an apartment building when they witnessed a drug transaction involving three men. Voeltz wrote in his report that the alleged seller, later identified as Miguel Monge, was hiding cocaine in his mouth before spitting it into his hand and then passing it to the buyer.
When the alleged buyers were pulled over and arrested by officers on the ground minutes later, the officers recovered two rocks of cocaine from the floorboard of the car–drugs that Monge had allegedly passed from his mouth to the driver of the car.
A DNA test revealed that the rocks were coated with saliva from two people–neither of whom was Monge. The case against him was dismissed.
According to district attorney’s documents, the DNA test did not conclusively show that the drugs were never in Monge’s mouth because the saliva from the two others could have washed his away. But the documents obtained by The Times also show the buyers in the case later told prosecutors that Monge was not the man who sold them drugs.
Two more cases–one involved Vinton, the other Voeltz–were dismissed without the drugs ever being tested for DNA.
Such was the case with Vinton’s arrest of Darla Diaz on Aug. 14, 1998. Vinton testified that he was on patrol with a reserve officer in the 200 block of South Mariposa Avenue when Diaz approached his police car. “I was parked in the middle of the street. She walked up to the passenger side door and spit it [rock cocaine] out right next to the door on the street.”
The case was dismissed three months later when prosecutors told the judge they were unable to proceed.
That decision, according to sources and documents, was made after Vinton was called into the office of Sally Thomas, director of central operations in the district attorney’s office.
“Dismissed due to attitude and problems of credibility with Officer Vinton,” stated a confidential D.A.’s document obtained by The Times. “Vinton . . . told [Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas] that she and the LAPD were doing things the old way and didn’t understand the way things had to be done to catch these gangbangers.”
Thomas, sources said, reported Vinton to Rampart Division Capt. Robert B. Hansohn, saying that she had serious concerns about whether the officer should remain on the streets. Weeks later, a source said, the officer was back on patrol.
Drug charges against David Hinestroza were dismissed in the middle of jury deliberations after his public defender, Marie Geelan, told the prosecutor that her key witness, Voeltz, had credibility problems as a result of the Nunez case a month earlier.
Although the rock cocaine, which Voeltz claimed he saw Hinestroza spit from his mouth, was never tested for DNA, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lia Martin said she no longer was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinestroza was guilty.
On top of the information about the Nunez case, Martin noted that Voeltz’s partner was unable to corroborate key elements of Voeltz’s testimony. Additionally, Martin said she was swayed by the fact that Hinestroza demanded to go to trial on the matter, even though he was eligible for a deferred judgment that would have effectively prevented the incident from going on his record.
The most recent dismissal due to DNA testing appears to have occurred in September of last year. In that case, a judge dismissed drug possession charges against Anthony Lewis, who was arrested by Southwest Division officers in April 1999.
According to the police report by Officer Clifford Byerly, he and his partner pulled over a car to write the driver a citation for being doubled-parked when Byerly noticed that the passenger had something in his mouth that appeared to be rock cocaine. Byerly wrote in a probable cause declaration that when he asked the passenger–Lewis–what was in his mouth, Lewis took off running. Byerly said he chased Lewis until the defendant lost his balance and ran into a fence in the 4500 block of Van Ness Avenue. He said he then watched Lewis spit what turned out to be a rock of cocaine from his mouth.

Judge Ordered DNA Testing
Peter Swarth, the defense attorney in the case, after being denied the funds for DNA testing by a court commissioner, persuaded Superior Court Judge Shari Silver to order the test.
Lewis told the judge he was so confident of his innocence that he would agree to plead guilty and wait in jail pending the results of the test.
He was soon vindicated, Swarth asserts. The DNA test results indicated there was no saliva present on the drugs. The DNA material that was present, the test showed, excluded Lewis.
One district attorney’s source questioned the reliability of the test in the Lewis case, saying that the fact that no saliva was present does not prove that the drug was not in Lewis’ mouth. In some cases, particularly when people are under the influence, they can be severely dehydrated and saliva would not be present in sufficient amounts to be detected. The source said there also could be problems with obtaining an accurate reading on such a minuscule amount of cocaine as constituted the evidence in this case.
Swarth said he had no doubt that the officer was lying, and wrote a report to his superiors alleging as much.
“All these guys learn to lie on the little stuff,” said Swarth, who has since left the public defender’s office. “Then they get emboldened by the success.”
In some cases as reported by the LAPD, it is as if defendants are fish, jumping into the boat.
Oscar Manuel Ramos, according to police, strolled into the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division one day and started to chat with officers. One of the officers noticed that Ramos had something in his mouth. They asked him to spit it out and it turned out to be cocaine. But according to defense attorneys, a DNA analysis has since shown that the rock was not in Ramos’ mouth, as the officers claimed.
Ramos’ case still is pending in Superior Court.

Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich contributed to this story.

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