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Originally published Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Not-guilty verdict a setback to nightclub sting operation

The rejection by jurors represents a setback for City Attorney Tom Carr and Seattle police, who have said the sting was necessary to protect public safety.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The first case to go to trial in last fall's controversial sting operation of Seattle nightclubs came back with a quick verdict: not guilty.

The case against Daniel DeLeon, 34, a former bouncer at Tabella Restaurant & Lounge, is one of two involving a firearm, and its rejection by jurors represents a setback for City Attorney Tom Carr and Seattle police, who have said the sting was necessary to protect public safety.

DeLeon was arrested after patting down an armed patron who turned out to be an undercover police officer. He said he didn't feel any weapon, but police disputed that claim.

The other case involving a weapon, in which a bouncer at Tommy's Nightclub & Grill allegedly took a $100 bribe to let a patron in with a gun, was dismissed in January after the undercover officer failed to show up to testify in court.

The sting, which targeted 15 clubs in Belltown, Pioneer Square and the University District over a two-week period in August, culminated in a sweep of workplace arrests on a busy Saturday night in September.

DeLeon was among 15 bartenders and bouncers arrested and had the distinction of spending the most time — more than two nights — in King County Jail. A dozen other employees, most of whom were not working that night, were also charged criminally.

In most cases, the charges were serving alcohol to minors or intoxicated patrons — administrative offenses usually handled by the state Liquor Control Board.

Critics have called the sting politically motivated, overkill and a misuse of scarce police resources.

Carr, who had said he would seek as much as a year in jail in the two cases involving guns, said Friday that a not-guilty verdict didn't mean the sting wasn't a success.

"We have a very high burden" of proof, he said. "We occasionally lose them. It doesn't mean we were wrong."

Carr also said the sting exposed how easy it is for minors to get inside Seattle clubs and be served alcohol. "As you know, the results were remarkable. The fact that one case led to a not-guilty verdict does not change that."

A spokesman for Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said the department generally does not comment on the outcome of trials.

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DeLeon's attorney, Matthew Leyba, of Associated Counsel for the Accused, said he filed three unsuccessful motions to get the case dismissed, and trial began Wednesday.

The jury deliberated for no more than 20 minutes before returning a verdict Thursday, he said.

"If a firearm got into the bar, [DeLeon] made a mistake," Leyba said. "That doesn't equal criminal liability, and the jury agreed with us."

It's against state law for anyone except an on-duty police officer to bring a firearm into a bar or to allow someone to do so.

Of the 27 defendants charged in the sting, about half have had their cases dismissed or will have them dismissed if they stay out of trouble and meet other conditions, according to a review of court records. Ten other cases are slated to go before juries this month or next.

The day after the arrests, Carr and Kerlikowske disclosed the sting at a news conference. That came about a week before a City Council vote on an ordinance that would have required nightclubs to have a special license — an ordinance Mayor Greg Nickels had lobbied hard to pass.

At the news conference, Carr and Kerlikowske said the sting operation showed why the mayor needed to have greater power over nightclubs.

"When we have businesses selling to minors, selling in excess and even allowing guns in, it's no surprise that violence breaks out on our streets," Carr said at the news conference, with a blowup photo of a gun as a backdrop.

The City Council ultimately voted to shelve nightclub licensing for a year. The council later passed legislation to create a nightlife advisory board, one that Nickels' office refused to pay for, saying it fell far short of what an ordinance would have accomplished.

DeLeon said Friday he's pleased he took his case to trial.

"I was just praying for the last three days. I couldn't sleep. I was so nervous," he said.

"I gained more faith in the justice system. What they were trying to accuse me of was absolutely ridiculous," he said. "Now we have it on the record so if the city tries to be stupid and tries to pull something like this again, the accused has something to fall back on."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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