Free Plumbing For Life

By Bill Collins:

Patricia B. was the type of client that I called "normal"—no criminal record, in her forties, and the manager and owner of a family run plumbing supply company. She was raised in the Bay Area and was an original "Flower Child," a hippie in the 1960s—Haight-Ashbury, love and peace, the whole nine yards. She left that culture to move to Echo Park in 1972 in order to help the family business, as her father was experiencing health problems. She lived in a modest but well-kept house with her friend, Carol M., who she had met in her Bay Area days. Pat had been living with her for two years at the time of her arrest.

A neighbor saw what she thought was evidence of drug sales from Patricia's residence. The neighbor said she saw frequent “trafficking”—people arriving by car who would stay a short time and leave, sometimes carrying a bag on the way out. She also said that when walking by the house, she could smell the odor of burning marijuana. The neighbor called the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. This Division would later be rocked by the scandal of Raphael Perez, who worked in the CRASH Unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). Perez implicated seventy police officers in beatings, torture, planting evidence, and falsifying police reports involving drug arrests. Their bad reputation preceded the big scandal of the 1990s.

The officer listening to the disgruntled neighbor was Alan K. He worked undercover and decided he would check out Patricia's residence. He observed the same behavior—absent the smell of marijuana—and felt he had enough evidence to investigate further. At this time, possession of marijuana could be charged as a felony. Officer K. knocked on Pat's door in plain clothes, identified himself, explained why he was there, and asked permission to search.

This is where the stories diverge. Patricia stated that she had refused his entrance and told the officer to go get a warrant. The officer said that she consented.

In any event, Officer K. entered and conducted a search. He was looking for a large amount of cash, packaging material associated with sales, records of sales, any controlled substances—but he found nothing. However, as he was about to leave, he noticed a black bag, a satchel, by the front door, partially obscured by a standing coat rack. When he opened the bag, he found a cornucopia of drugs—what appeared to be cocaine, crack, Quaaludes, and marijuana. All were in separate containers; one contained pills in a prescription-like vial, but there was no label or identifying name, no doctor's name or pharmacy, just a vial and unidentified pills. There were no initials on the bag, no papers in the bag, no clothing—in short, there was nothing to indicate who possessed the bag. Patricia was arrested, booked, and later released on $50,000 bail.

My initial meeting with Pat was after she had her preliminary hearing. These hearings are conducted to determine if there is a strong suspicion of guilt for the case to proceed to trial. (The vast majority of preliminary hearings do result in the case proceeding to the trial stage.) Pat's trial date was set.

Pat's explanation was that an old friend from her hippie days had come to visit. He knew both Pat and Carol M. The friend, Carl A., had brought the black satchel. Pat didn't deny that she was aware of the bag, but she stated that she had never looked inside, considering it was his private property. Carol M. would corroborate this statement. So, where was Carl A., I asked. She said she didn't know. He had left suddenly complaining of not feeling well. Carl A. was in his mid-sixties. Everything about her statement rang true with me, but that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I felt I had truth on my side—something that I didn't always have—but the pressure of believing my client to be innocent is vastly different than believing the prosecution cannot prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If I couldn't find Carl A., my chances of winning without corroboration of Pat's story was very doubtful.

The closest hospital to Pat's residence was Queen of Angeles—a hospital I had visited as a child for a concussion. I arranged for a meeting with the Administrator of Records and asked if Carl A. had been admitted in the recent past. The Administrator said he couldn't release the records because they were confidential. I anticipated that response and had a subpoena ready for him and a subpoena duces tecum for the records. Sometimes you get lucky. He produced an admission record and after thumbing through a few pages said that Carl A. had been admitted for seizures.

"What type?" I asked.

The Administrator said he didn't know, but in any case, Carl A. had passed away.

“What?” I exclaimed.

Shit, I wanted him in court. I asked what medication if any had been prescribed for him. The first drug he mentioned was Dilantin, a drug commonly prescribed for seizures. I reread the police report, especially the chemist analysis. The drugs were identified as cocaine, Quaaludes, and marijuana. But the pills in the unmarked vial were not identified. I called the District Attorney and asked that a chemical analysis be done on the pills.

On the day of trial, we were sent from the Master Calendar Court to the courtroom of Richard Ross. This particular judge had a terrible reputation for prosecutorial bias, interrupting defense counsel, aiding the prosecution, and taking over questioning. But there were other judges in the Criminal Courts Building who were just as bad. I didn't file an affidavit to disqualify Ross because I would only get one challenge, and I could be sent to another judge just as bad.

I made a motion to suppress the evidence on the basis that there was no consent and no search warrant, and therefore the search was in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures. Both Pat and Carol M. testified that no consent was given. Officer K. testified it was. To no one's surprise, the judge believed Officer K., and the motion was denied. The next day, the D.A. asked if I would stipulate to the findings of the chemist without calling him to testify. This is a standard question, and I always stipulated; there was no reason to bring the chemist in except to annoy the prosecution. The legal objection to him not testifying is hearsay (a statement made out of court offered to prove the truth of the assertion), but I knew that the D.A. would just call the chemist. I had a better idea.

"What was in the vial, the unidentified pills?" I asked.