(CN) – In a ruling that defends the relative honor of jailhouse snitches, the 9th Circuit on Thursday found that two California police officers had probable cause to arrest an attorney suspected of smuggling meth into a county jail.
Attorney John Garcia sued officers Alfredo Cardwood and John Taylor for Fourth Amendment violations and false imprisonment after his arrest in a reverse-sting operation built largely on the testimony of an incarcerated informant.
The informant, Robert Plunkett, gave the officers details of a methamphetamine-smuggling operation at the Merced County Jail that allegedly involved Garcia.
Plunkett, who was in jail on a theft charge, had learned from fellow inmate Alfonso Robledo that Garcia used packages of Bugler tobacco to smuggle drugs into the jail.
After corroborating Plunkett’s information, the officers, with the approval of the District Attorney’s Office and a judge, set the trap. They gave Plunkett a pass to get out of jail and a pouch of Bugler tobacco containing methamphetamine meant for Garcia.
Garcia accepted the pouch and took it to his law office, which the police later searched with a warrant, according to the ruling.
As the officers descended on the office, Garcia’s employee flushed the drugs down the toilet. Investigators discovered a small amount of methamphetamine in the office, a scale and six packages of Bugler tobacco, the ruling states. Garcia was arrested but not prosecuted.
Garcia accused the officers in a civil suit of “judicial deception” since they allegedly withheld details about the informant’s extensive criminal record. A judge would never have approved the reverse-sting or the warrant if he knew everything about the informant, Garcia claimed.
The officers moved for dismissal based on qualified immunity, but Senior U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, of California’s Eastern District Court, refused, finding that the officers did not have enough probable cause to make the arrest.
Pointing out that a jailhouse snitch brought down the infamous Manson family, who terrorized Los Angeles with a string of murders in 1969, the three-judge federal appeals panel in San Francisco reversed the District Court’s decision.
“Garcia was neither a green attorney nor one familiar only with civil practice,” Judge Stephen Trott wrote for the unanimous panel Thursday. “As of his arrest, he had been practicing criminal law in Merced and Modesto for twenty years, a fact known to the officers. Garcia does not dispute that he knew – as does anyone familiar with the system – that it was unlawful to deliver even tobacco to an inmate in the jail where Robledo and Plunkett were housed. Simply to accept jail contraband from one inmate who was out on a pass for delivery to another in custody raises unmistakable red flags. Thus, at the point of acceptance of the pouch, the officers clearly had probable cause both to arrest Garcia and to support their application to Judge Dougherty for a search warrant for Garcia’s office. The probable cause we conclude was present was not just that Garcia knowingly possessed the methamphetamine in the prepared pouch, but that he was actively involved in smuggling a controlled substance and contraband into the jail.”
The panel also rejected Garcia’s argument that the officers hid details about the informant’s record from the judge. Trott defended the age-old convention of the jailhouse snitch, finding that the judge in this case would likely have approved the warrant and the reverse-sting even if the officers had held back details.
“Indeed, it was information from a jailhouse informant, Virginia Graham, that put an end to the murderous rampage of the vile Manson family, a cabal of killers that terrorized Los Angeles, California in 1969,” Trott wrote. “While Graham was housed in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women with Susan Atkins, a member of ‘Charlie’s Family,’ Atkins told Graham how she had killed the actress Sharon Tate. Graham passed this information to the authorities, and the rest is history. Thus, the relevant question regarding information from Plunkett – and from all jailhouse informants – is not whether it is legally cognizable, but whether it is corroborated and credible.”
Despite omitting Plunkett’s prior convictions, “which were mostly for drug offenses,” the officers presented enough evidence to the judge, according to the ruling.
Because the officers clearly had probable cause to arrest Garcia and were therefore eligible for qualified immunity on Garcia’s Fourth Amendment claim, the panel also reversed the District Court’s denial of summary judgment for the officers on Garcia’s false-arrest claim under state law.