Defense Attorney Fights Back Against Drug Charge and Wins

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methJury Acquits Woman of Drug Possession, Transportation, Despite Police Finding Drugs on Her –

On the surface it should have been a routine drug case.  After all, police found drugs on the defendant Maria Cortez late at night on June 1, 2010.  She admitted that she was high on meth at the time of the incident and a blood test confirmed it. 

And yet a jury acquitted her of possession of meth and hung 10-2 in her favor (presumably) on a charge of transportation of marijuana.  The DA immediately dismissed the second charge, a misdemeanor count.

The defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Amber Poston, told the Vanguard on Thursday, the day after the verdict, that while she was not surprised with the verdict in the sense that she believed it was the right decision, she believed it took an exceptional jury to look past the surface issues and uncover what really happened.

“I had a really good jury,” she told the Vanguard.  “It is really difficult to pick a jury in a drug case that will read the evidence in an open-minded way.”

Especially, she said, when the defendant admits to using meth the night of the arrest and admits to chronic use of meth.

The Prosecution’s Case: Open and Shut

According to Deputy DA Jay Linden, Woodland Police Officer Cristobal Lara was driving westward on Court Street in Woodland, when he noticed a car parked illegally on the side of the road and stopped to investigate. 

There was no parking lane on that stretch of the street and so the car was in the outside traffic lane.  He got out and examined the vehicle, during which time he noticed two individuals across the street near a dumpster, at a distance of about 100 feet to 200 feet. 

He called out to them, asking if the illegally parked vehicle belonged to them, and they walked toward him normally. 

The male was given a field sobriety test and was arrested for DUI.  The female, who is the defendant Maria Cortez, had a baggie sticking out of the back of her pants which Officer Cordova, who’d arrived on scene to provide cover, noticed and pulled out into full view.  The baggie appeared to contain marijuana.

Inside the vehicle, a purse was located that contained a small bag of 0.84 grams of methamphetamine (confirmed by lab tests).  Ms. Cortez told the police that the purse in the vehicle belonged to her and had given consent to search it. 

Ms. Cortez claimed that the bag of meth was not hers and she did not place it there.

The officers performed a blood draw on Ms Cortez that night and it confirmed that she was high on meth at the time of the incident.

The Defense’s Case: Not Her Drugs

The defense claimed that neither bags of drugs belonged to Ms. Cortez and that she had not willingly possessed or transported the drugs.

Maria Cortez testified on the stand that the bag of marijuana was simply pushed into the back of her pants by her male companion as they walked towards the policeman. 

She said that the man, whom she’d known for three years prior to the incident, was a friend of her husband’s, and while shoving the marijuana in the back of her pants had told her that he was in enough trouble with the police already and that she would have to deal with it. 

She explained during the trial that she did not know what to do at that point.  She said that she did not know how the methamphetamine got into her purse. 

Deputy Public Defender Amber Poston noted that it was odd that the baggie in the purse was on the very top of the items there rather than hidden below – one of a number of odd facts in the case.

Ms. Cortez, during her testimony, explained the circumstance in which she lived.  She said she lived on a ranch located on a country road outside Woodland. 

She lived in a trailer which had no gas, electricity or running water – only a gasoline-powered water pump. 

She had lived there with her husband for about 6 years.  She worked on the ranch and since she lived there, was not paid otherwise for her work. 

She stated she had met her friend’s husband about 3 years prior to June 1, 2010, and that he would come to her trailer to smoke meth because he wanted to keep his drug use a secret from his family.  Ms. Cortez would smoke with him in exchange for that, and would travel with him to visit other friends of his where she could shower and eat.

She explained that she knew that her husband’s friend dealt drugs and that she’d seen him doing this.  She explained that on the night of June 1 2010, they had both gone to two other residences and smoked meth at one of those locations, and had dinner at the other. 

She said that they were returning home when she saw a dumpster and suggested they stop to see if there might be anything useful inside it.

Ms. Poston stated in her closing statement that the charges of possession and transportation require elements of control of the drugs which Ms. Cortez did not have, given her circumstances, though the drugs were on her person and inside her purse. 

She stated that Ms Cortez’s living conditions were not described in order to garner sympathy, but rather to describe the predicament she was in and the lack of independence she had at that moment.

It is also noted that she generally lacked the means to purchase the quantity of drugs found on her that night.

Analysis: Why the Jury Acquitted in this Case

The most potent element of her case was her own sworn testimony.  Throughout the trial she had been in tears and seemed genuinely troubled.  She took the stand and, seated barely arms length from the jury, gave a simple, direct and highly convincing account of her living circumstance and the events of that evening.

She testified that she did not know what to do when the male stuffed the baggie into the back of her pants.  She stated that, when asked by Officer Cordova about the baggie, the male had chimed in and said it was his drugs.  She said that she had seen her husband’s friend with a gun in the past, though he did not have one at the time.

Officer Lara  admitted during his testimony, which was critical for the defense case, that he had pulled the male aside for the sobriety test and also asked him whether he would want to become a confidential informant for YONET (Yolo Narcotic Enforcement Team). “I believe I asked him about whether he wanted to work for YONET” the officer stated. 

Ms. Poston would later explain to the jury that the one-hour long police car video was played for them, not so much for what it showed but rather that it demonstrated the time scale of the events. She said that the male suspect was taken out of earshot and out of the camera’s scope, supposedly for a sobriety test that lasted most of half an hour, and that he appeared to have been removed from the scene even before his car was searched (which would normally be done so that further evidence might be located for more charges).

As Ms. Poston would explain to the Vanguard, this is critical as to why the jury reached the verdict that they did.

She said that the jury was very disappointed with the police officers in this case.

“They couldn’t understand why their [the Woodland Police Officer’s] testimony was so inconsistent with what the cop camera showed,” she said.

Furthermore, they could not understand why everything important that happened during the course of the arrest occurred outside of the view of the camera.

The time frame that the police testified to did not match up, according to the jury, with what was on the video.

“They thought that their [the police’s] testimony was very spotty and their investigation was spotty,” she continued.

They did not like the fact that Officer Ron Cordova claimed he was a cover officer, but the video made clear that he was much more than that.

The jury did not understand why the police misrepresented what was on the video, or were so unprepared that they did not watch the video.  “They were very upset about the police,” Ms. Poston added.

The jury also did not like the fact that the evidence was destroyed.  Apparently, according to one of the witnesses, the DA’s Office, when they closed out the case of the co-defendant, ordered the drug evidence destroyed, apparently inadvertently  unaware that there was a trailing co-defendant in the case.

It would seem to make sense to preserve evidence anyway, but that did not happen.

Moreover, they did not like the fact that the co-defendant, who was at the scene of the crime and a participant, was not presented by the District Attorney.

There is speculation that this individual was made into an informant for YONET, and thus given reduced charges.

Amber Poston told the Vanguard that she did not know for sure that this was the case.  “I will probably never know, but I have my suspicions,” she said.

Adding to the problems for the defendant now, Ms. Cortez has an immigration hold and will be sent to immigration.  She will go to deportation proceedings.  She won’t necessarily be deportable because of the drug charges, and there are other mitigating circumstances that could lead to immigration relief, according to Ms. Poston.

“A major issue in these deportation proceedings is the nature of the conviction you suffer, if any, and drug-related convictions are some of the most detrimental in immigration proceedings, especially methamphetamines,” she said.

As noted earlier, Ms. Poston was thankful to get a jury willing to examine the case in an objective manner.

“[Drug cases] are some of the most difficult cases for jurors just by their natures,” she said, “especially methamphetamine, the societal stigmas and the damage that that drug causes.”

“I think the jury reached a very fair decision and I think they reached the right decision.  I think that they were very thoughtful about the task that they were given,” she added.  “Not every jury that I’ve seen was as thoughtful as my jurors were.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 thoughts on “Defense Attorney Fights Back Against Drug Charge and Wins”

  1. Roger Rabbit

    Well, only DA Reisig could somehow screw up and lose a drug case where the drugs were found on the suspect, the suspect admitted to possession of drugs and had drugs in their system.

    You can bet the word around the DA’s office is, stupid jurors could not figure out how to get out of jury duty so they are too stupid to convict.

    Another waste of tax payer money, resources and court time. But we can’t forget this case raised the crime stats, gave some more grant justification and got an DA a stat for going to court. Most people don’t know this but DA Reisig tells his Deputies that if they do not go court they will get a bad evaluation. No incentive there to waste tax payer money.

    I will be waiting for Reisig, I mean Justsaying, to come on and explain how the Jury, this article and everyone got it wrong and how great DA Reisig is.

  2. Fight Against Injustice

    To me the more alarming pieces to consider are:

    1. DA’s office had the evidence destroyed when they closed out the co-defendant’s case. Whether it was inadvertant or not, it is very sloppy to have the evidence destroyed.

    2. The jury felt that the police’s testimony did not match what happened on the video and that some important pieces were outside the view of the video.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “She said that the jury was very disappointed with the police officers in this case.”

    From what I can tell, most of this is merely the defense attorney’s opinion of why the jurors made the decision they did. Were any jurors actually personally interviewed for this article? If so, how many?

    I’m wondering if we are going to see more sloppy cases like this, in which insufficient preparation was done for trial, as a result of all the budget cuts? The prosecution and law enforcement are going to have less in the way of resources to handle cases…

  4. TimR

    I was part of a different jury some years ago with a similar situation. The evidence at face value looked as though the defendant was guilty. It wasn’t until the Police Officer was questioned when it became evident that there were serious holes in their portrayal of the events. If the DA was not painting a complete picture of what happened during the night in question, it left the jurors wondering what else they were not saying and with a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the defendant.

    In our case, the charge was possession of an unused hypodermic needle. This was about 1 month after the law was changed to allow the lawful possession of needles, however the DA pursued this case because the arrest occurred before the change in law.

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