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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Cops Stole During Drug Raid, Suspect Says

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. (CN) - A Northern California drug defendant's attorney says a hidden camera caught a correctional officer stealing during a drug raid of his client's home.

According to newspaper The Del Norte Triplicate, a special team of officers from Pelican Bay State Prison assisted Del Norte Sheriff's deputies in a raid of James "Jamie" Banuelos' house this past March.

However, the FBI got involved after Banuelos came forward with hidden camera footage showing one or more officers taking cash from his wallet, the newspaper said. One Pelican Bay correctional officer, Matthew Yates, admitted taking the money and the Del Norte DA's office charged him with petty theft late last year, the newspaper reported.

Banuelos' defense attorney, Michael Riese, told Courthouse News the video showed officers laughing and high-fiving each other as they took the cash from Banuelos' wallet. The tape also showed an unidentified officer telling another to break Banuelos' car windows and that the county would deny any claim because the officers had a search warrant, Riese said.

The officers involved in the raid turned in a list of seized items. But the list omitted a few things including an 84.4-gram gold necklace and other jewelry, Riese told Courthouse News.

Banuelos' necklace later showed up for sale on Craigslist with an asking price of $6,000. A geo-tag location showed the ad's photo had been uploaded from a Del Norte County office building, Riese said.

The list also left off a car trailer which, Riese said ended up in the possession of a sheriff's deputy who claimed it was his.

Riese, a former law enforcement officer, later worked his way up the Del Norte District Attorney's Office before being elected as the county's DA. He is now in private practice.

"I've worked both sides of the table and you just don't do those kinds of things," he said, adding that he hopes this incident is an anomaly.

"Most [law enforcement officers] are honest, upstanding, wonderful people [and] do perform their job admirably, focusing on serving our community," he said.

But there are some drug task force officers who customarily knock down any cameras they see when they execute a warrant, he said.

"Jamie, like so many other suspects, also gets a visit by way of the drug task force invitation from the county code enforcement officer who walks through the house for the purpose of finding things to 'red tag,' thus turning these warrants into revenue generating visits," Riese said.

On Jan. 11, Banuelos pleaded guilty to felony methamphetamine possession with intent to sell and maintaining a drug house, the Triplicate reported. Riese said the video gave him the leverage he needed to negotiate a favorable plea deal for his client.

Riese said that during his time as a prosecutor years ago, he prosecuted Banuelos for possession of four ounces of meth and put him away for four years. Now, because of the video, he was able to negotiate an open plea agreement calling for no more than three years of confinement for possession of a pound and a half while prosecutors had asked for six years, he said.

Deputy District Attorney Annamarie Padilla did not return a phone call requesting comment late Friday afternoon.

"At so many levels this case exemplifies why an outside agency like the Justice Department should look into how the accused are being treated and how there is a system entrenched here that does not focus on justice," Riese said. "It focuses on how to generate revenue and in Jamie's case, steal under color of authority."

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