Police investigating marijuana find at Richmond officer’s home

on November 2, 2014

Just before Thanksgiving last year, a UPS Store employee turned over a box containing about 5 lbs. of marijuana to Richmond police officer Joe Avila.

Avila took the parcel and radioed to dispatch that a formal report of the incident would follow.

But the marijuana he carried from the shop that afternoon was never booked into evidence at the precinct. And the report he promised in follow-up to the call for service, which he had specifically asked dispatchers to assign to him, was never filed.

According to a search warrant issued by the Contra Costa Superior Court in September, the drugs didn’t make it to the Richmond Police Department’s property vault, but ended up at Avila’s home in Oakley, 44 miles away.

The warrant authorizing a search of Richmond Police Officer Joe Avila's home (Photo by Parker Yesko)

The warrant authorizing a search of Richmond Police Officer Joe Avila’s home (Photo by Parker Yesko)

 

Now Avila, a K-9 handler and 17-year veteran of the force, is on paid administrative leave. He has become the subject of an internal affairs investigation, one that clearly implies a breach of departmental protocol and possibly much more. Dozens of other unfiled reports raise questions about what additional evidence may have gone missing.

“It is [the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office’s] belief and opinion that Richmond Police Officer Joe Avila intentionally collected drug evidence from the Richmond UPS store on 11/25/13 and kept for his personal use or use for sale,” reads the search warrant’s statement of probable cause. “Individuals who posses more than 28.5 [grams] of Marijuana are commonly known to possess such amounts for sell [sic] for profit.”

In the search of Avila’s home on Sept. 23, investigators discovered an unknown quantity of a substance suspected to be marijuana “in plastic bags.” The contraband was stashed in a black Pelican case—the type of hard container law enforcement officers use to store weapons and equipment, according to court documents.

Sources close to the investigation cited by the San Francisco Chronicle have said that the search of Avila’s home returned a “large amount of marijuana.”

A cache of 5 lbs. of pot would contain roughly 80 times the amount that is legally punishable by jail time.

But Avila, who earned $209,350 in total compensation as a police officer last year, has an explanation for the marijuana that doesn’t involve plans to sell it on the side, according to the warrant.

Before they searched his home, Avila told investigators that he took the pot home to train his partner Bosco, a drug-sniffing dog.

Detective Hector Esparza, President of the Richmond Police Officer’s Association (POA), agreed that Avila’s explanation is plausible.

“There’s no criminal element in this whatsoever,” Esparza said. “In my opinion it’s a purely administrative matter. K-9 officers use narcotics for training their dogs, it’s how they keep them up to speed.”

The POA is a labor union that, amongst other mandates, advises police officers of their rights when they are under suspicion or facing termination. Members have access to free legal representation through the POA’s legal defense fund.

Avila’s attorney has not responded to requests for comment.

According to Esparza, who noted that he is not a K-9 expert, there is a process for obtaining evidence for training purposes that likely includes getting authorization, accounting for the drugs, and weighing them, none of which appear to have been done by Avila.

“I think administratively there might have been mistakes,” Esparza said.

Internal Affairs was first alerted to Avila’s possible misconduct in January, but it took investigators until early September to act on the allegations against him.

When they did, they discovered that Avila’s lack of follow up after the UPS call was not an isolated incident. The officer had failed to write up at least 36 other reports during the course of duty, according to the warrant.

When Internal Affairs Investigative Sgt. Eddy Soto confronted Avila about the marijuana in his possession, Avila appeared not to remember where he had tucked it away, according to the warrant.

“Avila told [Soto that] there might be some marijuana in [the] trunk of his K-9 vehicle… If it was not in the Pelican box in the trunk of his vehicle it would be at his home,” the warrant reads.

The Richmond Police Department Policy Manual has strict guidelines about packaging, labeling, storage, and chain of custody that are meant to safeguard evidence against tampering and ensure that it will hold up in court.

Officers are also required to complete reports for all calls on a shift before going off-duty, while their recollection of events is fresh. A supervisor can provide permission to delay only in special circumstances, according to the manual.

“Officer Avila was to write his report, as well as log the suspected marijuana into locked property as evidence or found property; this was never done and [is] a violation of RPD policy and procedure,” the warrant says.

When Avila admitted to using two pounds of evidentiary marijuana for K-9 training in February of this year he also said, according to the warrant, that he had “told his K-9 Sgt. that he had obtained the marijuana from the UPS on a previous case.”

Avila’s statement appears to implicate at least one other unnamed officer in his breach of protocol.

The Richmond Police Department has been reluctant to comment on the case due to disclosure restrictions on Internal Affairs investigations outlined in the Police Officers Bill of Rights.

“The fact that the officer is on administrative leave should not be viewed as a statement of guilt or a punishment,” said Cpt. Mark Gagan. “Paid administrative leave is an opportunity for our department to do a thorough fact-finding investigation.”

“The officer is fully cooperative,” said Gagan, who declined to identify Avila by name.

Esparza defended his colleague’s character, citing an instance when Avila used his own money to replace equipment stolen from a North Richmond baseball team.

“That’s the kind of officer Joe is,” Esparza said. “He’s from Richmond, he grew up here. He’s committed to the community.”

Good community relations haven’t always been a strong suit of the Richmond Police Department, but when Chief Chris Magnus took over the department in 2005, he made it a priority to rebuild trust between residents and cops. Under his leadership crime has dipped to its lowest level in decades.

Magnus expressed alarm over the fact that the actions of one long-time officer might undermine some of the force’s recent progress.

“I am deeply concerned about this matter and the negative impact it has on our department’s reputation,” Magnus said.

8 Comments

  1. Chief Chris Magnus on November 2, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Officer Hector Esparza is the RPOA President. He does not speak for the Police Department. As he correctly indicates in the article, he is not a K-9 handler himself or an expert in K-9 polices or practices.

    I want to assure the public that there is a very specific process and set of procedures K-9 officers are required to follow when it comes to training their dogs in drug detection. Without getting into the specifics of the Avila case, such procedures would not allow officers to confiscate, fail to check into evidence, take home, or utilize large quantities of any controlled substance for training–or any other reason.

    The Department takes this matter very seriously. We intend to conduct a thorough investigation into what has been alleged. Unlike RPOA President Officer Esparza, who is free to engage in public speculation about his peer’s case, the Department will follow the requirements of the Police Officer Bill of Rights and address the allegations through the appropriate administrative and criminal processes.

    Chief Chris Magnus
    Richmond Police Dept.



    • Vinay on November 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks Chief. Your response definitely helps. We want to trust our police and work with them, and dealing with such cases impartially is key to that trust. I also agree that impartiality is important to protect the public standing of other officers who are doing a great job.



    • VivaLaDemocracy on December 18, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Chief,

      First off — thank you for all that you do.

      However, I must say that as a Citizen I am deeply disappointed in how you are handling this matter. There should be criminal charges brought against this officer — just like any other Citizen who police suspect of violating the law. You executed a probable cause warrant for search and seizure, on the suspicion that the officer had these drugs without authorization.

      The Officer clearly had marijuana in his possession and did not have any written authorization to have it. In fact, it is clear that he usurped multiple general controls to obtain it — which, means he had it unlawfully. This is a crime, possession of marijuana. It’s punishable by incarceration and a fine.

      Again, it’s hard for the public to respect law enforcement when they are not held to the same standards of due process and criminal prosecution that the general public is. Honestly, it just seems like favoritism.



  2. F. Castle on November 3, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Just a couple of comments….

    Ofc. Joe Avila is competent, hard working and dedicated Richmond Police officer. There are a lot of important parts of the puzzle in these allegations. So the picture that the article paints is like an iceberg floating in the sea, the whole truth of the matter hidden from view.

    The allegations only made it to the media because a small group of disgruntled officers told the Contra Costa Times. All these officers heard were rumor and conjecture surrounding what is clearly an administrative matter, not a criminal one. Officers are held accountable or vindicated from administrative violations all the time. The fact that some would take one officer’s ALLEGED mistakes to the press to disparage him in the court of public opinion is shameful. I wonder how they would enjoy such biased treatment.

    As for the search warrant, its use is often over blown in the criminal justice system. It is simply another tool investigators use based on their opinion with some facts. What is not found or located is just as important as what the investigator expected to find. Bottom line, a search warrant alleges one thing or another.

    “Unlike RPOA President Officer Esparza, who is free to engage in public speculation about his peer’s case, the Department will follow the requirements of the Police Officer Bill of Rights and address the allegations through the appropriate administrative and criminal processes.”

    This statement almost insinuates that the RPOA president is or could violate POBR, which is hilarious. Government Code 3300 and 3301 concerns employer-employee relations only. Chief Magnus goes well out of his way to trash Esparza’s comments. The article already covers that the department can’t comment on the investigation due to POBR. Esparza is simply doing his job as a POA president, advocating for a fellow member.

    Concerning the POA president the author of the article does a terrible job of describing the role of the RPOA and the POA president. I suggest you do more research.

    Concerning Ofc. Joe Avila’s salary, what exactly does that have to do with anything?

    “Total compensation” is the municipality and media attempting to skew numbers against public employees. That number is the total cost of his employment. Ofc. Avila EARNED $161,404 which includes his EARNED salary, EARNED, incentives and EARNED overtime. He didn’t get it for free, he had to show up and work for it. That’s his total compensation PRE TAX, not some re-framed number from the City of Richmond and the Contra Costa Times, whose parent companies, San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group continue to spout in their decade long war against public employees.



    • VivaLaDemocracy on December 18, 2014 at 11:41 am

      $ 161,000 is over three times the median household income (of 2.6 persons) for the US. In fact, it’s more than twice what most business professionals with a Bachelor’s of science make in a year.

      Second, if citizen had been caught with 5 pounds of marijuana in their home, they would be in jail. This Officer clearly had no authorization to have the marijuana — simply put, it’s a crime.

      I think the public will rest better when LEO’s actually face the same criminal justice system they have sworn to serve and protect. Any other person would be charged first, and the questions would be asked later.

      When the police stop acting like they are above the law, then the public will have more resepct for them. Just remember that.



  3. […] was holding it for a friend: Police investigating marijuana find at Richmond officer?s home | Richmond Confidential […]



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