Tuesday, February 26, 2013 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A 24-year-old man is tasting freedom after a jury acquitted him of selling heroin to an undercover officer and then eating $20 in city funds to destroy evidence, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jury members deliberated less than four hours Monday before finding Carlos Vasquez not guilty of felony heroin sales and misdemeanor destruction of evidence. If convicted, Vasquez faced eight years behind bars, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michelle Tong.
The construction worker, a San Francisco native, was arrested Nov. 9 during a police “buy-bust” operation targeting drug dealers in the Mission District. Police alleged that a decoy officer asked to buy $20 worth of crack cocaine from Vasquez while Vasquez and his girlfriend stood on Mission Street between 16th and 17th streets. Police said Vasquez instead offered to sell heroin to the decoy officer. After the alleged transaction, the decoy officer walked away and signaled to the other 11 officers involved in the sting and Vasquez was arrested.
Police found no money and no drugs on Vasquez, even during a subsequent strip search. One of the officers claimed that after showing Vasquez his badge, Vasquez chewed and swallowed the $20 bill in seconds.
During the three day trial, Tong argued that the young Latino man with closely-cropped hair was the victim of mistaken identity in a busy neighborhood full of young men who look similar.
While officers were reportedly watching Vasquez, they failed to describe his physical characteristics or clothing in any way, Tong said.
“There were no pictures, no audio or video, no witnesses, no DNA and no description in the dispatch tape or computer system. Police offered no testimony or evidence that they arrested the right man,” Tong said.
Vasquez also took the stand, testifying that he was surprised and upset by the arrest, which occurred in front of his girlfriend’s residence. Vasquez said he and his girlfriend had just eaten lunch in the neighborhood and he was finishing his cigarette in front of her building when he was surrounded by police.
Tong also questioned the officer’s description of Vasquez consuming the $20 bill. The officer testified that Vasquez lifted the bill to his mouth with an open palm. Vasquez, with the partially crumpled bill hanging halfway out of his mouth, then allegedly started chewing while staring at the officer calmly and defiantly. All of it happened, the officer testified, in the split second it took him to travel 10 feet to arrest Vasquez. The officer further testified that Vasquez turned his head as he was arrested, which was when the officer assumed Vasquez swallowed the money. Officers did not attempt to open Vasquez’s mouth to retrieve the city funds.
To illustrate the improbability of the officer’s version of events, Tong put a $20 bill in her mouth, showing jurors the space it would take up and the difficulty a person would have chewing and swallowing the item in seconds.
Adachi said the case is an example of wasted resources.
“This sting operation involved a dozen police officers waiting to arrest someone over $20 of drugs. Despite all that manpower, officers couldn’t offer any description of their suspect and instead arrested a man coming back from lunch with his girlfriend,” Adachi said.