Prosecutors drop charges in 'ghost gun' case linked to LAPD gang unit scandal

Los Angeles, CA - September 26: Los Angeles City Hall tower is reflected above the entrance to LAPD Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles City Hall is reflected above the entrance to LAPD headquarters downtown. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County prosecutors have dismissed a gun possession charge against a man who was stopped by police officers from a scandal-plagued gang unit within the LAPD's Mission Division, one of the first instances of a case being compromised by the department's latest corruption scandal.

The decision came after a preliminary hearing Thursday for Raphael DeLeon on a felony charge of having a concealed unregistered firearm in a vehicle, according to his attorney, Ninaz Saffari.

After the defense argued the gun was recovered during an illegal stop, Saffari said Monday, prosecutors told the court they couldn't proceed because three of the officers involved in the stop would not be available to testify because of a pending investigation.

Saffari said DeLeon was pulled over because of his race, and she believes prosecutors dropped the case because the officers would have been called to testify about why they made the stop.

"Latino guy driving around, and basically police officers were going on a fishing expedition and they say let's pull this guy over," she said. "I think that it's a pattern of conduct and I think that they got caught this time."

In a motion filed before the hearing, Saffari argued the gun charge should be thrown out because the officers had no probable cause to search DeLeon's car after pulling him over for reportedly failing to signal while making an improper lane change.

The motion criticized the officers' apparent delay in activating their body-worn cameras — a convenient lapse that Saffari said ensured there was no video of her client's supposed traffic violations. There was also no footage of the “furtive movement” that officers said DeLeon made while reaching for a gun. DeLeon has denied both allegations.

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"There is only one logical reason all three Officers did not activate their (body cameras) earlier, including when Mr. DeLeon was first interrogated — all three knew this was a bogus stop that would lead to an unconstitutional search," Saffari wrote.

Prosecutors have identified as many as 350 criminal cases that are potentially compromised because they relied on the testimony of or evidence gathered by two Mission gang officers, according to sources who spoke previously with The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.

The LAPD's internal investigation has dragged on for nearly a year, the sources said, and the probe has allegedly uncovered a range of misconduct, including inappropriate stops, misuse of body-worn cameras, and possibly a robbery.

The district attorney has said the LAPD has provided the results of its investigation into two of the officers, and charges are under consideration.

The FBI is also investigating the unit for potential constitutional violations.

Read more: Prosecutors fear LAPD gang unit scandal could jeopardize over 300 cases, sources say

The gang unit's alleged misconduct came to light after a traffic stop last December. A motorist filed a complaint, claiming the officers were rude and didn't have a legal basis for searching their vehicle. An internal affairs detective assigned to the case noticed discrepancies in the involved officers' account of the stop. The department's inquiry widened to include stops carried by others in the unit, uncovering numerous instances in which officers were late to activate their body cameras or otherwise failed to document the encounter, in violation of department policy, officials have said.

At DeLeon's hearing, the prosecutor announced that the charges would be dropped because three of the involved officers were not available to testify, Saffari said.

Tiffiny Blacknell, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said the case was "unable to proceed because the necessary witnesses were unavailable.” Blacknell said those witnesses are Mission gang officers.

The dismissal is thought to be one of the first cases linked to the Mission Division to have charges dropped. Legal experts have said prosecutors will have to weigh whether they have enough evidence to proceed with pending cases, while also potentially revisiting prior convictions or guilty pleas that hinged on the testimony of officers tainted by the scandal.

Up to 15 officers from the Mission Division are under suspicion, according to sources who requested anonymity to discuss confidential personnel matters. The department has declined to identify the officers.

The officers mentioned in Saffari's motion were Alan Carrillo, Anthony Cardoza and Marvin Perez.

In an email to The Times, Perez said the "situation is still under investigation and should be treated with delicacy." He referred further questions to his commanding officer at the Mission Division and to his attorney. Cardoza declined to comment and Carrillo did not respond to an email.

An LAPD spokesperson said the three officers are still working at Mission Division but are no longer with the gang unit. Internal affairs investigators have continued to notify the D.A'.s office "of any discrepancies between the arrest report and the video evidence" of former Mission gang officers, the LAPD said.

The case against DeLeon was dismissed on procedural grounds, the LAPD said, and the recovered "ghost gun" "was ordered to be destroyed by the judge and remains off the streets of Los Angeles."

LAPD officials said previously that two Mission officers suspected of misconduct have been sent to face a disciplinary panel called a board of rights, indicating the department is seeking to terminate them for misconduct. The three officers named in connection with the DeLeon case are not believed to be among those facing the disciplinary panel.

The remaining officers from the unit have been assigned home or placed on restrictive duties that take them off the streets, according to the department.

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Though prosecutors in the past have notified attorneys when their cases involve officers suspected of misconduct, Saffari said she learned of the allegations against Mission officers only after reading news accounts of the case.

The stop of DeLeon occurred May 28 in the area of Woodman Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard. Saffari argued it was problematic from the start. Carrillo wrote in his report that he and his partners pulled Deleon over after he swerved into another lane while driving in an area known as a hotbed of gang activity and violence.

The officers discovered DeLeon's license was invalid and that he had a prior misdemeanor conviction for firearm possession, Saffari said. Instead of arresting DeLeon for the misdeameanor of driving without a valid license and obtaining a warrant to search the car, the attorney said, the officers ordered Deleon and a female passenger to stand on the sidewalk while they performed a "protective sweep" of the vehicle.

"The invalid license did not give the police carte blanche to search his vehicle," Saffari said.

The officers also failed to activate their cameras until after running DeLeon's license, she said, despite a department policy that says officers should record the entirety of all public encounters.

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Officers did find a Polymer80-brand “ghost gun” under the front driver's seat, the motion said. But their explanation for looking there — that DeLeon reached in that area after being stopped and was "shaking and repeatedly looking downward in a furtive manner" — was not captured on any of the three officers' body cameras.

The search was illegal, Saffari argued, probably based on a hunch that DeLeon might be armed because of his past criminal record and the area where he was stopped. "The police failed to articulate any legitimate, truthful facts whatsoever that would lead a reasonable person to believe there was an unregistered firearm or other illegal contraband in the vehicle," her motion read.

The gun and any other items seized from DeLeon could not be used in court because they were recovered during an illegal stop, Saffari said, calling the evidence "the fruit of a poisonous tree."

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.