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.
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.
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