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Eric B., Hip-Hop Legend, Avoids Prison in Case Out of the Past

Nearly two decades ago, Eric Barrier — facing criminal charges arising from a traffic stop that escalated — hired a lawyer who later went to prison for life.

On Friday, Mr. Barrier was facing possible prison time himself. A judge sentenced him to probation instead.

The ruling stemmed from a 2002 guilty plea by Mr. Barrier — half of the trailblazing duo Eric B. and Rakim, who occupy two spots on Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 hip-hop songs of all time list — in New Jersey state court, according to court records.

Having pleaded guilty to eluding arrest and aggravated assault, Mr. Barrier was to be sentenced that March, court records show. Prosecutors agreed to recommend a 364-day jail term and probation. But Mr. Barrier did not show up in court on the sentencing date, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

More than 17 years passed before Mr. Barrier learned of the warrant from law enforcement authorities in Vermont after he crossed the Canadian border last month, his current lawyer, Patrick Toscano, said.

When Mr. Barrier went to court to address the matter, Mr. Toscano said, sheriff’s officers took him to the county jail, where he spent two weeks until being freed on bail over prosecutors’ objections on Nov. 12.

The charges stemmed from an episode that began when Mr. Barrier failed to stop his Range Rover after the police had signaled him to pull over, court records show. The incident ended when a patrol car crashed into Mr. Barrier’s vehicle to bring it to a halt, Mr. Toscano said.

He appeared in Bergen County Superior Court on Friday. Mr. Toscano argued that his client should be spared jail or prison time. The top count that Mr. Barrier pleaded to in 2002, eluding arrest, is a felony that carried a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Barrier should serve the one-year jail term he agreed to in 2002. Judge James J. Guida settled instead on a year’s probation, with the option of a 90-day sentence if Mr. Barrier made any missteps.

Why did Mr. Barrier miss his sentencing in 2002? Mr. Toscano blamed Paul Bergrin, Mr. Barrier’s lawyer at the time and a notorious figure in the recent annals of the New Jersey bar.

Mr. Bergrin had told Mr. Barrier that he had made a deal with prosecutors for his client to enter a pretrial intervention program, and that “there was no need to appear on the sentencing date,” Mr. Toscano wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to Judge seeking Mr. Barrier’s release.

“When Mr. Barrier asked if he was sure of that,” Mr. Toscano added in the letter, “Mr. Bergrin advised him that he definitely did not need to appear.”

In addition, Mr. Toscano said in an interview this week, Mr. Bergrin told Mr. Barrier that his enrollment in the intervention program meant he would serve little or none of the jail time he had agreed to.

Mr. Bergrin told Mr. Barrier to await instructions from program officials about how he should proceed, Mr. Toscano said. Mr. Barrier waited. When he did not hear anything about the case for about a year, Mr. Toscano said, “he thought it was dismissed.”

“It is evident,” Mr. Toscano wrote in his letter to Judge Guida, “that Mr. Bergrin’s counsel to Mr. Barrier was flawed, fraudulent, unethical and deceptive.”

Mr. Bergrin’s legal ethics have been questioned before.

He started out as a state and federal prosecutor before switching to criminal defense, taking on drug lords, rap stars and soldiers accused of abusing and killing Iraqis as clients.

Prosecutors began to investigate him after noticing that witnesses in some of his cases were changing their stories, or being killed. He was indicted in 2011 on more than 30 counts, including witness tampering, murder, drug trafficking and racketeering.

He was “a one-stop-shopping criminal enterprise” who enlisted clients in his drug business and ran a prostitution ring for a client in jail, prosecutors said. New York magazine called him “The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey.”

In 2013, a federal jury convicted Mr. Bergrin on 23 counts, including murder. He is serving a life sentence at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, the so-called supermax prison near Florence, Colo. Other inmates there include Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo; Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber; and Zacarias Moussaoui, a Qaeda operative who pleaded guilty to helping plan the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Bergrin could not immediately be reached for comment.

For Mr. Barrier, 56, the case has re-emerged at a particularly inopportune time.

For one thing, it threatened to derail a recent foray into acting. After appearing in an episode of the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs” last year, he joined the CBS drama “Blue Bloods” this season for what Mr. Toscano said was to be a regular role.

The television work weighed heavily on Mr. Barrier during his time in jail, according to Mr. Toscano’s letter to Judge Guida.

Mr. Barrier, Mr. Toscano wrote, was “overcome with anxiety” that he was “likely to have his contract voided” if he was not released and able to explain the situation to the producers.

Press representatives for “Blue Bloods” and CBS Television Studios, which produces it, did not respond to requests for comment about Mr. Barrier’s status with the show. He plays a former police officer who comes out of retirement to help a friend who is still on the job.

The case also threatened to upend Mr. Barrier’s rejuvenated music career.

He first teamed up with Rakim (born William Michael Griffin Jr.) in 1986. They released their first album, “Paid in Full,” the next year. Three more albums followed before financial differences led them to split up in the early 1990s.

They reunited in 2017 for a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Paid in Full,” and have performed regularly since then.

Their next concert was scheduled for Friday night in Wilmington, Del. After his court appearance ended, Mr. Barrier hustled into a car and headed south for the show.

Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting.

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