Judge changes mind: California paper can report details on ex-detective with alleged Mexican mob ties

A federal judge changed his mind on Tuesday after previously directing the Los Angeles Times to amend a story about a former California police detective who was accused of working with the Mexican mafia. The judge made his initial decision because he feared for the ex-detective’s life.

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter granted a temporary restraining order sought by the attorney of John Saro Balian, 45, who was revealed to have made a plea agreement. The deal was supposed to be filed under seal but was accidentally made available in a public online database of federal court documents, according to the Times.

The Times removed any references to the sealed agreement following Walter’s original decision, which resulted in backlash from free speech advocates, news outlets and legal scholars. The Times immediately challenged the initial decision.

Walter said the Times is now free to publish the information, but asked the paper to “use some restraint” because of potential consequences.

“I’m concerned about somebody’s life. And if I err, I’m going to err on the side of protecting this defendant."

- U.S. District Judge John F. Walter

“I’m concerned about somebody’s life. And if I err, I’m going to err on the side of protecting this defendant,” Walter told the courtroom, according to the Times. “I’ve always been a strong proponent of the First Amendment and believe in public access to this courtroom.”

The Times announced that it had restored the original version of the story to its website after the reversal. 

“This story was restored to the version that was published before a federal judge ordered the Times to remove references from the filed plea agreement. The judge lifted the order Tuesday morning,” the article now states.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press were among 59 media organizations that defended the Los Angeles paper through a petition. Critics of Walter’s first ruling pointed to a 1989 Supreme Court decision in favor of a newspaper that had published the name of a rape victim, declaring that a news organization can’t be punished for publishing something revealed in public records.

"If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order," the Supreme Court wrote at the time.

Meanwhile, Balian pleaded guilty last week to three counts, including lying to investigators about his ties to organized crime, accepting a bribe and obstructing justice after tipping off a top criminal about a federal raid, the Los Angeles Times reported.

His stint as an allegedly corrupt detective came to an end once the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force identified him as a person of interest after investigating links between the Mexican mob and Armenian organized crime.

One informant told the authorities that Balian tipped off a gang member in Los Angeles about a raid. “Tell your boy Bouncer that he’s the No. 1 on the list for tomorrow,” Balian allegedly said, according to the Times.

The target of the raid fled and wasn’t arrested for “about a month,” according to the Times.

Balian is to be sentenced in September and faces a maximum of 35 years in prison, according to the Times.  

Fox News’ Lukas Mikelionis contributed to this report.

Brian Flood covers the media for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter at @briansflood.