August 18, 2004 08:00 AM

Police who raided Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in search of evidence last November had “probable cause” to believe that the star had committed a crime, Judge Rodney Melville ruled Tuesday in the pop star’s molestation case.

Melville rejected a challenge by defense attorneys during a pretrial hearing, saying sexual abuse accusations supplied “probable cause to believe that Mr. Jackson had committed criminal offenses based on the statements of the minor witnesses.”

Jackson’s lawyers had contended that search warrants for Neverland were legally flawed and requested a hearing to determine if evidence found there should be suppressed, reports Reuters.

That evidence has not been made public because Melville, who has conducted the case under nearly unprecedented secrecy, has kept it under seal.

Jackson, who attended court on Monday dressed in symbolic white and accompanied by members of his family (also dressed in white), was a no-show on Tuesday, with the judge’s approval. Jackson, 45, is scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 31 on a 10-count indictment that charges him with child molestation and conspiracy. He has pleaded not guilty.

Earlier Tuesday, Melville fined one of Jackson’s attorneys, Brian Oxman, $1,000 – which he was forced to pay immediately – for defying an order.

Oxman had been attempting to get psychologist Stan Katz to admit he had a conflict of interest in the case because he had counseled both Jackson’s young accuser and a private investigator who worked for the singer’s former attorney.

Melville repeatedly warned Oxman that Katz, because of confidentiality requirements, could not be questioned about his patients. Oxman persisted, however, prompting the usually soft-spoken judge to turn angry and tell lead defense attorney Tom Mesereau: “Mr. Mesereau, you’re in charge of this team. We’ve got a problem.”

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