There was “a lot wrong” with an affidavit that a former detective prepared to secure a search warrant in a drug case, and a criminal case can proceed against him, a judge said during a preliminary hearing Thursday.
While the judge ruled that the case can move forward against August “A.J.” Santana — a former detective with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office — Santana’s attorney defended his client.
“I don’t believe that A.J. ever intended to mislead the magistrate,” Thomas Worthington said after the two-day hearing.
Santana faces a count of felony perjury for allegedly providing a judge with false information while seeking a search warrant in 2014. He had pleaded not guilty.
Because there was a conflict of interest with the District Attorney’s Office, the California Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case.
A former Pismo Beach detective, Santana had been with the District Attorney’s Office for seven years in August 2014 when he and others on a multi-agency drug task force set up a controlled buy, which would be used to secure a search warrant against a suspected drug dealer named Tommy Pappas, of San Miguel.
In a controlled buy, a confidential informant — someone who has been arrested but works out a deal with law enforcement — agrees to set up a drug dealer by purchasing drugs from him, testified Eric Twisselman, a narcotics unit supervisor for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
If a controlled buy is successful, investigators can ask a judge — citing facts from the buy — to approve a search warrant for the seller’s residence.
In August 2014, Santana and another member of the narcotics team met with an informant, called “John Doe” in court, at a cemetery in San Miguel. The informant was to purchase drugs from Pappas in a nearby park, then meet elsewhere with Santana to hand over the evidence.
In his affidavit for a search warrant, Santana wrote that the informant met him across the street from a Chevron gas station and handed him methamphetamine. They then drove to a dirt turnout and met with Noah Arnold, a probation officer, who placed the meth in evidence bags.
During the investigation of Santana’s case, the informant’s wife told a state investigator that she was walking across the street from the Chevron when “they did their little swapping thing.”
But witnesses from the narcotics team contradicted her, saying the informant’s wife got into her husband’s vehicle before he gave Santana the drugs. That compromised the controlled sale, they said, because she could have provided the drugs and not Pappas.
John Doe’s wife — who had also worked as an informant — had not been searched beforehand.
“There’s a problem with who actually brought the drugs,” testified Gerald Giese, a sheriff’s investigator who was involved in the operation.
After John Doe’s wife entered his vehicle, Giese testified, he believed they should have called off the operation.
“It just wasn’t clear,” he said. “We should have just done another buy.”
Santana misled the judge by wrongly reporting the exchange, contended Deputy Attorney General Seth McCutcheon.
Worthington, the defense attorney, said Giese and Santana had argued before the purchase about how to approach it. And, he said, Giese gave different versions of where he was after the informant purchased the drugs.
Worthington said both Giese, the sheriff’s investigator and Arnold, the probation officer, lost sight of the informant for a time. That’s when the informant gave Santana the drugs, Worthington said.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Donald Umhofer said the informant’s wife was vague in court, forgetful and “not particularly believable.”
And, Umhofer said, Giese and Arnold testified seeing the informant’s car at the Chevron, not across the street from the gas station.
“I don’t know what was going on, but there was a lot wrong with this warrant,” Umhofer said.
In September 2014, sheriff’s narcotics officer raided Pappas’ home, based on the warrant, and allegedly found a small amount of meth and paraphernalia. Last October, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against him. Santana was placed on leave two days later.
He no longer works with the District Attorney’s Office.
After the hearing, Worthington said Santana was an honest detective with a good record.
“He’s had a very, very distinguished career,” Worthington said.