In late May of 2019, $10,000 worth of contraband arrived at our local prison. It came in two packages disguised to make it appear that they were sent by a company approved by the prison, when in fact they came from members of a blood click south of our local downtown. The contraband was hidden in Stax Potato Chips cannisters. It was vacuum-sealed to prevent detection by our K-9 units.
Prison packages can’t just come from anyone. They can only come from “approved vendors.” These are companies that are checked by CDCR to ensure that they will not send contraband to inmates. This prevents a grandma from sending her son a birthday cake with a file in it, for example. Each prisoner, if they are following the rules, gets a certain number of packages from these vendors each year. Prisoners can choose what items they want. They can order everything from Air Jordans to televisions.
Even though the mail system is designed to prevent contraband from entering the prison inmates still attempt to smuggle things in through the mail. They may organize a group of inmates to make this possible. Once a group of inmates has established a method of introducing contraband, they call it a “route.” The roles on the route are fairly well-established. For example, every route needs a facilitator on the outside to obtain the contraband. Routes need receiving inmates on the inside to take possession of the contraband. If you’re moving drugs, you may need a seller to distribute the drugs once their inside. The list goes on and on. Inmates working in the mail room are particularly valuable. They can identify packages with contraband and keep them away from the officers.
The $10,000 worth of contraband that arrived in 2019 was on a route. It was only a small part of the contraband that arrived into the prison on that route, and an even smaller part of the total contraband that arrived that year. But shutting down a route can do a lot of damage to the black markets that flourish in the custody environment. Black markets are a problem because of the violence that comes with them. The black market for alcohol during prohibition gave us Al Capone, for example. In prison, when you buy something on credit and can’t pay, you get an Al Capone response, or worse. When someone doesn’t pay in the black market, they get hurt or killed. That’s why routes are bad. Drugs, particularly methamphetamine-induced psychosis, are also a problem in prison, and they come in the routes.
This is an example of how the contraband was hidden within the packages. The contraband arrived in a large box. Inside the box were additional sealed containers, such as this potato chip can. Inside the can, under the chips, was another vacuum-sealed container. The vacuum-sealed container had tobacco. This was one of three cans of contraband in one of the packages. Tobacco is illegal in prison. Because of that, this would sell for roughly $2,000 on the black market.
So we filed a case on the $10,000 worth of contraband. The detectives traced the packages back to the street and identified the true sender. They found video of him sending the packages at a UPS store. They did a search warrant at his house and found stolen guns. We charged him, along with the two inmates who he addressed the packages to. It was these two inmates that presented the greatest problem for the prosecution. All we had was the mere fact that they were intended the receive the contraband. After all, they had to be in on it with that kind of money involved.
Most cases result in plea bargains. We kind of suspected that this one would too. I was surprised when both the inmates insisted on their trials. Even the civilian, who was caught dead to rights, wanted a trial. We set the case for trial in 2021 and I set up a meeting with my investigating officer to check on the case. After all, it had been two years since we filed it.
At the meeting, I expressed surprise that there were no more connections between the civilian defendants and the inmate defendants. I asked the detective to go look for something. He returned later that day with great evidence. He found recorded calls from the civilian to the inmates. In one of the calls, they discuss “hussling” a “package” “low key” to “get some money off of that.” I informed the defense.
That’s when my troubles started. The defense claimed that this was late discovery and should result in a continuance or a mistrial or something. They were mainly angry that the case against the inmates, which had looked weak the day before, had suddenly become very strong. It became clear that one of the defense attorney was advising the defendants not to settle because he believed he could beat the case. He loudly and repeatedly accused me of misconduct and sandbagging. I pointed out that the jail calls were with a third party, Global Tel Link, and not exactly sitting in my drawer for two years. I pointed out that these calls were equally available to both parties. If he had wanted them, he could have subpoenaed them. I also pointed out that his client, who is on the calls, has known about them for years, whereas I just found out about them. I felt confident that any conviction would survive an appeal.
We began the trial. As I began to roll out the evidence, I felt better and better about my chances of convicting the inmate defendants. I could see the defense attorneys becoming desperate as their defense got less and less believable. But they did not let go the griping about late discovery. They kept making outlandish claims, saying that they would have hired voice recognition experts and things like that, if only they had known about my evidence.
The judge was new: it was his third trial. He was starting to rattled by the defense claims. Judges don’t like to be overturned. They don’t like to have to retry cases. It embarrasses them. They also believe that it hurts their chances of moving to the appellate bench. All these considerations weight especially heavily on new judges. Without a history of appeals they have no sense of what is an issue and what is a defense red herring.
Unfortunately, the judge in this case lost his nerve. On the last day of trial, he offered sweetheart deals to each of the defendants if they would plead guilty. I think he did this because he believed the discovery issue would cause the case to be reversed on appeal. He was very polite about it, and I believe this judge has a bright future, even though he made the wrong call here. We let the jury go, and I spent the rest of the afternoon drinking at a Mexican restaurant with the cops.
The lesson for me: meet with the cops to review the cases way before trial, not the day before trial. The lesson for the cops: present all the evidence at filing, not some of it. And the lesson for all of you would-be judges out there: don’t lose your nerve. Trials are about truth, not evidentiary quibbles, and no one docks your pay if the Court of Appeal reverses you.