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U.S. District Judge Baer Removes Himself from Controversial Drug Case



On May 16, 1996 Federal District Judge Harold Baer, Jr. removed himself from a Manhattan, NY drug case saying his decision was "in the interest of justice" for the defendant (Don Van Natta Jr., "Baer, U.S. Judge, Removes Himself From Washington Hts. Drug Case," New York Times, May 17, 1996, p. B1).

Judge Baer ruled on January 24 that the search of Carol Bayless' car was unreasonable because police brutality and corruption are so prevalent in some neighborhoods in New York City that it is natural for people to run away from police. He said that even innocent people flee the police in Washington Heights, a neighborhood where officers were viewed as "corrupt, violent and abusive." Because he found the search unreasonable, Baer excluded 80 pounds of drugs as evidence and a videotape confession in which Ms. Bayless stated that she had made at least 20 round trips from New York to Michigan since 1991 to ferry drugs.

As was reported in the April issue of NewsBriefs, the judge reinstated the crucial drug evidence on April 1 in the case after a rare rehearing in March and considerable public and political criticism. Judge Baer denied that the political pressure had influenced his reversal, saying that he changed his mind after hearing the testimony of a second arresting police officer, and the defendant, Ms. Bayless.

The backgound on this case was reported in the March issue of Newsbriefs. On April 21, 1995, police observed four men putting duffel bags in the trunk of a rental car with Michigan plates. When the officers approached, the men ran away in different directions. The police then searched the car for drugs, confiscating 34 kilograms of cocaine and 2 kilograms of heroin. Officers testified that the men running away from them and the out-of-state rental car constituted enough "suspicion" to search the car.

By removing himself from the case, Judge Baer said he hoped to avoid time-consuming delays caused by an inevitable challenge to his decision to reinstate the drug evidence. He wrote, "It has become clear to me that for me to try this case will create several unnecessary and otherwise avoidable problems and attendant delay." The judge invoked a rarely used local rule, asking that the case be reassigned to another Federal District Judge.

The controversy over the original ruling and the decision to reinstate the evidence ignited a debate about whether political leaders were meddling in the courts. President Clinton said that he "regrets his decision" to appoint Baer and Bob Dole called for Baer to be impeached. This prompted four judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to respond in a March 28 statement, "The recent attacks on a trial judge of our circuit have gone to far. ... These attacks do a grave disservice to the principle of an independent judiciary (David S. Broder, "Rehnquist's rebuke to Dole and Clinton," Boston Globe, April 15, 1996, p. 11)."

Ramon W. Pagan, Ms. Bayless' lawyer, said he thought the judge's decision to remove himself was intended to get around the issue of political pressure. "This is one of the most unusual cases in jurisprudence, where you had the three most powerful men in the United States threaten a judge and cause my client to feel that she could not trust any of his future decisions." Pagan vowed to address the issue again in appeal.