Fired Veteran Dope Cop Vindicated and Reinstated

Posted on Monday, July 01, 2002 at 12:00PM
Posted by Harry S. Stern

Background: Arbitrator Paul D. Staudohar has reinstated Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriff Sean Yates with full back pay and benefits, ruling that the county had insufficient proof when it fired him based on an allegation that he stole $5,000 while searching the home of two drug dealers.

Yates began his law enforcement career as a deputy assigned to the Custody Division back in 1989. Yates eventually made it to the streets where his proactive work ethic earned him a coveted spot in the sheriff’s office’s Narcotics Unit.

On March 9, 1999, Yates was scheduled to testify in court, but agreed to assist the Pittsburg Police Department Narcotics Team with a probation search in their city, after he learned that court had been postponed.

The Pittsburg officers had information that an unmarried couple was dealing substantial quantities of cocaine from their flat in a rough-and-tumble section of their city. Since the female half of this “dynamic dope duo” was on felony probation from a previous narcotic sales case, the officers’ plan was to conduct a probation search of the home.

After the standard pre-operation briefing, the assembled group of officers descended on the target address. Yates quickly located an ounce of crack cocaine located in the flat’s bedroom. Once the drugs had been collected, Yates went to the garage to assist another officer.

The garage was a single car affair with a small laundry room located at the back of the garage proper. Yates briefly poked around the laundry room and found an electronic scale typically used for weighing drugs. Yates shouted out his discovery and summoned the case officer and the designated “finder.” Yates, who has allergies, began hacking because of the dusty conditions inside the laundry room.

Yates decided to change out of his raid gear, which was now covered with dust and debris, and so he grabbed the car keys from his partner.

What ensued was a bizarre series of events that, given the drug dealers’ later claim that money was missing from the laundry room, led the sheriff’s office to mistakenly believe that Yates had helped himself to approximately $5,000.

As Yates approached his partner’s unmarked car, he noticed that a group of bystanders were congregated around the car watching the action. As Yates drew closer, the group dispersed. Yates took off his mesh utility vest, bulletproof jacket and gun, and placed them in the trunk. In so doing, Yates managed to lock the keys in the small space between the trunk lid and the bumper. Yates enlisted the help of a near-by man who was working on his car. This “Good Samaritan” lent Yates a small pry bar to lift up the trunk lid enough to retrieve the keys.

As is standard practice, Yates moved the car closer to the suspect’s flat. As Yates got out of the car, one of two men who were washing a car across the street shouted out that there was money on the ground and that it was theirs (the car that the men were washing had been parked in the spot now occupied by the unmarked police car).

Thinking nothing of it, Yates picked up the two bills and handed it to one of the men. Yates exchanged some lighthearted banter with the men and questioned one of them about the drug suspects. Yates eventually directed the case officer to speak with one of the men who had some useful information about the activity at the address.

Once the search was over, the officers piled into their cars and prepared to leave. One of the officers discovered a bill lodged in the area between the hood and the car’s front windshield. Further examination revealed a second bill on the other side of the windshield. The officers were puzzled and, having no rational explanation for the presence of the bills, simply booked them into evidence as found property.

The male drug dealer first mentioned the missing money two or three days later in a telephone call with the case officer. Given the dealer’s casual reference to the money, the case officer thought he was joking. However, the female drug dealer’s uncle made a formal complaint to the Pittsburg Police Department’s Investigation Unit who, in turn, notified the District Attorney’s Office.

The District Attorney’s Office launched a full-scale criminal investigation, which finally produced a comprehensive 127-page report. The report cleared Yates, and the senior deputy district attorney who reviewed the case opined that the case “had more questions than answers”, despite the Herculean efforts of the assigned investigators.

The Internal Affairs Investigation: Unfortunately, Yates’ trials and tribulations were far from over. The sheriff’s office opened its own internal investigation. The internal affairs investigation relied almost exclusively on the work of the criminal investigators, re-interviewing three or four of the 15 or so witnesses in the criminal case. However, the internal affairs investigation had a dramatically different result: The sheriff’s office sustained the allegation against Yates, finding that he had committed grand theft and was untruthful when he denied committing the theft during the internal affairs interview. Accordingly, the sheriff’s office terminated Yates in October 1999.

The Legal Defense Fund and the board of trustees gave Yates their full support, including the go ahead to seek a Writ of Mandate in order to thwart the sheriff office’s efforts to use certain evidence against Yates. For an in-depth description of the Writ proceedings, see Alison Berry Wilkinson’s article in the April 2002 edition of PORAC News.

The Hearing: Once the Writ proceedings were concluded, Yates’ case finally moved to a hearing before Arbitrator Paul D. Staudohar in December 2001. The hearing was exciting and dramatic, complete with surprise testimony and shocking revelations, worthy of a made-for-TV-movie. The county leveled two other alleged “independent” theft allegations against Yates, and over my objections, allowed testimony concerning them. However, in the final analysis, the arbitrator held the allegations to be unworthy of consideration.

As to the underlying allegation, a number of critical facts came to light that tended to show that, if there was indeed any money stolen, it was stolen by someone other than Yates. In fact, during the course of the hearing, the identity of the true culprit in the theft was likely exposed.

First, the testimony at the hearing established that the couple were drug dealers, whose relationship was violent and tumultuous. A short time before the theft allegation, the male drug dealer learned that the infant that bore his name was not, in fact, his child. The county’s own witnesses testified about frequent outbursts of domestic violence between the two. Furthermore, it turned out that the girlfriend was arrested a month or so after the raid on their home for attempting to run over the boyfriend with a car.

Some of the other county’s witnesses described the girlfriend’s prior criminal history, which included assaults, shootings, drug dealings, and street robberies.

The key evidence that showed Yates’ innocence concerned the garage door. When the officers arrived at the couple’s flat, the girlfriend gave the officers the only key to the garage so they could search it. One witness officer (called by the county) testified that he had inadvertently left the key inside the garage when he had closed and locked the garage at the completion of the search.

Both dope dealers testified that the woman had telephoned the man when she was released from jail to tell him about the raid. The boyfriend blurted out, “Did they find the money?” to which the girlfriend replied, “What money?” In response, the boyfriend explained that there was money hidden in the garage.

When the boyfriend returned home several hours later, he found that the garage door had been broken open and that his money was missing. The boyfriend assumed that the police had broken open the garage door. Thus, the girlfriend had ample opportunity to help herself to the money once she learned about its existence. The arbitrator found that the girlfriend had, “motive [and] opportunity, because ample time elapsed between when [she] learned about the money and when [the boyfriend] returned home from work…that someone broke the lock to the garage cast suspicion on [the girlfriend], because there was only one set of keys and she knew the money was in the garage.”

As to the “flying money,” the county’s civilian witnesses either completely contradicted themselves or gave testimony that supported Yates’ case. Reflecting on the “flying money,” the arbitrator stated that, “It is odd that money was found on the windshield of the white car as the officers were preparing to depart the scene. There is simply no logical explanation for this. It is virtually certain, however, that the grievant [Sean Yates] did not place the money there.”

Sheriff Rupf himself testified that Yates had no prior discipline in his 9 ½ years at the department, and that, apart from the theft allegation, Yates was a “good, productive deputy sheriff.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, and after receiving extensive post-hearing briefs discussing the facts and procedural issues, Arbitrator Paul D. Staudohar issued a 25-page Opinion and Decision.

Staudohar explored the important procedural question of the applicable standard of evidence. The departments own witnesses had conceded that the evidence of “guilt” rose, in their minds, to the level of a “preponderance of the evidence.” Furthermore, the county’s witnesses acknowledged that in previous cases concerning criminal allegations, the department had always used the “clear and convincing evidence” standard to determine culpability. Staudohar found that the application of a lesser standard in Yates’ case was “arbitrary.” Staudohar commented that even under the lesser standard the county’s case “is not proven.”

As a result, the arbitrator found that, “The county did not sustain the burden of proof in demonstrating that the grievant was guilty of dishonesty or theft. Accordingly, it did not have cause to discharge the grievant. After careful consideration of all written and oral evidence presented by the parties, the discharge of the grievant is overturned. He is ordered reinstated to his former position with full back pay and benefits.”

At the end of the day (and the case), a number of factors combined for a victorious outcome. Yates’ excellent record and reputation was given significant consideration, as well it should have. But above all else, this case signifies a commitment by a long-time, respected arbitrator to the concept that a veteran cop should not be jettisoned from the profession without legally sufficient proof of misconduct.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.