Prosecutor: Drug squad thought badge protected them from law

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Citizens give police "a tremendous amount of power" and cannot let them use it to beat, rob and intimidate people — even if they are drug dealers, a federal prosecutor argued Tuesday as she wrapped up a sweeping drug squad corruption case.

The Justice Department indictment accuses six members of an undercover Philadelphia drug squad of stealing more than $400,000 during illegal drug raids from 2006 to 2012.

The squad obtained search warrants after-the-fact, lied on police paperwork and framed people in court to make the kind of headline-grabbing cases that pleased bosses, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maureen McCartney said. It also proved lucrative, she said.

"We invest in police officers a tremendous amount of power," McCartney argued. "They believed, because they wore a badge, their crimes would never see the light of day."

About 160 convictions have been overturned and dozens of civil rights lawsuits have been filed over the squad's arrests and last year's 26-count racketeering indictment.

Defense lawyer Jack McMahon said the government has "run amok" pursuing squad leader Thomas Liciardello and five others based on testimony from 19 drug suspects and a disgraced officer.

Some witnesses admitted they were drug dealers, but others said the large stashes of cash allegedly stolen came from various non-job sources: FEMA payments, a vehicle sale, wedding gifts, workers compensation. McMahon said, however, that the FBI never bothered to corroborate their stories through bank records or other paperwork.

The defense pointed to Walker as the lone thief in the squad, a 24-year veteran who drank and fell asleep on the job as his marriage crumbled.

Several police supervisors called by the defense also attacked Walker's credibility while praising Liciardello's aggressive police work.

"You're dealing with drug dealers, drug addicts, criminals. ... It was screaming, cursing, yelling, probably constantly," McMahon argued. "If not for guys like this, guys willing to do this work, guess what? The inmates start to run the asylum."

In one tape from an FBI sting played in court Tuesday, defendant Brian Reynolds is heard berating a stopped driver, telling him to surrender his phone and get out of the car. When the man — working for the FBI — asks what he's being arrested for, Reynolds tells him to stop asking questions.

"(Otherwise), I'm going to take you for a ride and you're not going to like it," Reynolds said on the tape.

He and other defendants searched the car without a warrant and moved it, but they listed all the money the FBI planted in the car, according to the trial evidence.

Walker took the bait in a similar, earlier sting, stealing $15,000 and planting drug evidence. He then began cooperating with the FBI.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday after more defense arguments.

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