A Richmond, California police officer was allowed to testify in several criminal cases despite being under investigation for mishandling 5 pounds of seized marijuana, Richmond Confidential reported.
Defense attorneys accused the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office of violating ethics rules by not informing them that Officer Joe Avila was under investigation while continuing to use him as a key witness.
“They are cutting him some slack because he’s a police officer,” said the county’s chief public defender, Robin Lipetzky. “Anybody else found with 5 pounds of marijuana in their possession, I don’t care who that is, that person is going to be charged with a crime.”
Lipetzky told the Contra Costa Times that the local district attorney’s office is not likely to pursue charges against Avila. According to a search warrant, Avila took a box containing between 4 and 5 pounds of marijuana home from a UPS store in November 2013, instead of putting it in the department’s evidence locker.
Avila also failed to file an incident report for the seizure, despite telling a dispatcher that he would do so.
Internal affairs investigators began looking into Avila’s activities in September 2014, and found that he failed to file follow-up reports on more than three dozen service calls. Avila said during the probe that he used 2 pounds of the marijuana stash to train his police dog, and that there may be more in the trunk of his patrol vehicle or his home.
That same month, he was put on paid administrative leave and several plastic bags containing marijuana were found inside a gun case in Avila’s house. But prosecutors still called on him to testify in criminal cases, and did not respond to defense attorneys’ request for more background information on the officer.
“They have a constitutional mandate to disclose exculpatory evidence to us prior to a trial,” Deputy Public Defender Elise McNamara said. “If there’s an officer on the case who’s been discredited, then we have the right to know that.”
McNamara said Avila was allowed to testify against a client of hers despite being the subject of his own search warrant. Her client was subsequently convicted, she said, largely on the basis of Avila’s testimony.
Lipetzky has subsequently called for the case to be handled by state Attorney General Kamala Harris’ (D) office, saying local district attorneys cannot be impartial in cases involving law enforcement.
“They have a vested interest in not having an officer’s credibility called into question, because then it impacts all the cases they’re trying to prosecute,” Lipetzky said.