A Not-So Sunny Fourth

by Bruce McEwen, July 7, 2011

Susan Holmes, Jason Skaggs, Sunny Edwards & Shawn Johnson

It’s easy to see why people take a shine to Sunny Edwards. She’s pretty and personable with a warm smile, and somehow while in jail she’s acquired the wholesome glow of an expectant mother.

Sunny, smiling all the while, has acquired other things on her journey along life's trail including the wrong men and a strong desire for illegal drugs. Her legal file is pretty thick. It goes back a long time, with many drug busts for possession of opiates like hydrocodone, oral morphine, diazapan, a pharmacopeia of downers for a seemingly “up” person.

Sometime last year Sunny got involved in a robber with another druggie, Ron Saraes. In the aftermath of that adventure, Saraes pled to car theft, false imprisonment and a special allegation, probably a weapon or a prior, and went off to prison.

Sunny Edwards was on for sentencing last week, and it looked like she’d be following her co-defendant to the state pen. But her lawyer surprised everyone by announcing that his client was pregnant; and not only pregnant, but in need of immediate medical attention.

Deputy Public Defender Andrew Wiggins, with the DA himself looking on, suddenly announced, “She’s in dire need of medical attention, your honor,” producing a page with a statement from the client, who was now also a patient.

Wiggins handed a copy to visiting Judge Andria Richey, and one to DA David Eyster.

Then Wiggins produced another document and gave out copies of it adding, “Complications have arisen, intensive care will be needed. It’s a fairly urgent matter and we’re asking for her release in the immediate future.”

DA Eyster said, “Wait a minute, judge. I’m being handed these things on the fly.”

Ms. Edwards was standing shackled and chained in the dock; she wore garishly orange striped pajamas, her posture a little bent and downcast.

“The pregnancy did not seem to be a concern at the time she was under the influence of drugs at the jail,” Eyster declared, glancing through the pages he’d just been handed.

Mr. Wiggins replied, “I can represent that that was not the case. The problems have started fairly recently.”

“Well, what I’ll do is consider releasing her for an amniocentesis,” the judge said.

“Okay!” Ms. Edwards offered brightly.

“No no, you’ll have to set this up with probation, and I’ll set whatever conditions they require,” the judge continued.

“Thank you, your honor,” Mr. Wiggins said.

Sentencing was re-set for July 15th.

In another matter in the same courtroom, this one presided over by Judge John Behnke, attorney Keith Faulder was challenging a search warrant.

A search warrant can be tricky business. But Faulder’s been mountain climbing in the Himalayas and the Andes, and he’s just as intrepid in courtrooms.

“Your honor,” Faulder began, “the search warrant authorized the search of only one residence on the property. The warrant did not have separate probable cause for each residence. My client’s Fourth Amendment rights were clearly violated.”

Faulder quoted some case law about how these search warrants don’t allow the cops to go through whole apartment buildings while they're looking for things at a single address on the warrant, and suggested that the same spirit of interpretation should apply to the Fort Bragg parcel that was raided June 14th by the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force. The rumor around the Courthouse is that the property is owned by the mother of the new Assistant Deputy DA at the Ten Mile Court, Mr. Fuentes.

There were ten people living on the three-acre property in six different residences, including two travel trailers. The officers searched them all, netting a great many fingerling marijuana plants of about one or two inches. The officer in charge of the raid was Deputy Jim Wells. Readers may recall that defense attorney Al Kubanis, in another matter involving Wells, had accused the deputy of heedlessly ramming a vehicle to keep it from driving away with a bunch of meth.

That morning there had been a column in the New York Times lamenting the current state of ruin attending the Fourth Amendment in the nation’s courts. From the Supreme Court all the way down to the Superior Court of Mendocino County, judges are automatically deciding in favor of law enforcement over the statutes protecting citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement officers, the judges are saying, don’t have to play by these particular rules. A Mendocino County cop will counter that they're dealing with the criminal class, not Constitutional scholars.

Judge Behnke fell in line with the national trend. “I appreciate your argument, counsel. But this is a rural property, and it being common in Mendocino County for such a parcel to have outbuildings and a barn and such… Well, so for the time being, I’m going to deny the motion.”

Next day another motion to suppress. Again, attorney Al Kubanis was alleging impropriety on the part of law enforcement.

Jason Skaggs had been caught by Ukiah Police officers with a quarter ounce of meth. The officer said a 14 year old kid had invited the police into the house where Skaggs was found with the dope.

The kid was sitting in the courtroom with his grandmother, who is his legal guardian. Gran also held an infant. The boy was waiting to testify that he had not invited the police inside. The infant's mother, it turns out, is Susan Holmes, one of Public Defender Linda Thompson’s most frequent of frequent flyers; and another character involved here is Ms. Thompson’s second worst headache, Shawn Johnson.

Grandma's house sounded like a pretty exciting address.

Deputy DA Katherine Houston wanted Grandma and the kids to wait out in the hall. She asked Judge Richey that witnesses be excluded. Kubanis felt this was a little much. Why couldn’t grandma continue to sit comfortably with the baby in the courtroom? She wasn’t going to testify.

But Ms. Houston wanted her outside, and by the time they got it all sorted out granny and the baby had been banished.

As the hearing began, Ms. Houston noted that the defendant, Mr. Skaggs, was on what’s called 1210 probation. To get on 1210 probation, you have to waive your Fourth Amendment rights. By waiving his Fourth Amendment protections, Skaggs had to submit to search of his property and person at any time. Same for Shawn Johnson and Susan Holmes. It is fair to say that the main business of the courts these days is to get as many people in the drug life as possible on 1210 probation. But it didn’t mean that the cops could just come and go as they pleased from Grandma’s house, and Al Kubanis was pretty sure they had bamboozled the kid to gain entry.

But first, before they ever even went up to the door, the cops sent Officer Kevin Murray around to the back gate of 136 Clara Avenue, just off State Street in Ukiah. It was December 17th, 2:45 in the afternoon, and Officer Julian Covella was taking the rookie Jared Dunn on a training ride when a 836pc bulletin came over the radio.

“What’s that,” Judge Richey asked.

“It’s a bulletin to be on the lookout for somebody,” Covella explained. In this case, Shawn Johnson.

The officers had a pretty good idea that on a cold day in December Mr. Johnson would be with his main squeeze, Ms. Holmes, and they'd be at Grandma’s house. But before the cops went to the door, they sent Officer Murray to the back gate, the idea being that when the cops are at the front door the people they're looking for are zipping out the back door. Officer Murray is the Ukiah Police Department's fleet footed wonder; he's only been out-run once in the two-and-a-half years he’s been on the force, and that time, he says, if he hadn't taken a spill and torn his uniform, he'd have caught the guy. When he finally did catch the perp, Officer Murray recalls, he was given “special treatment,” a rather daring admission from a police officer if Murray was referring to himself.

Back at grandma's house the day Mr. Skaggs got caught with the crank, Covella remembered, “Officer Dunn and I went to the front door and knocked.”

Houston asked, “Then what happened?”

“Daniel Holmes — er, uh, a male juvenile about 14-years-of-age came to the door.”

“Did you speak to this juvenile male?”

“Yes. Officer Dunn asked if Shawn Johnson was in the residence.”

“And then?”

“Officer Murray called and said he heard voices in the backyard, so we asked if we could enter.”

“And what did this male juvenile say?”

“He said, 'I guess so.'“

“What did you do then?”

“We proceeded to search the residence and I went out to the backyard.”

“What did you see there?”

“A male subject, the defendant, Jason Skaggs, on the back porch.”

“What did Officer Dunn do?”

“He heard a voice in a small shed and contacted a male subject in the shed, Shawn Johnson, and he placed him under arrest.”

“Did Officer Murray come into the yard?”

“Yes, I believe he did.”

“What happened next?”

“While Officer Dunn was placing the handcuffs on Mr. Johnson, Mr. Skaggs took a small object out of his pocket and let it fall to the ground.”

“You saw this?”

“Yes, a quick movement out of the corner of my eye.”

“And what was this object?”

“A small plastic bag containing a white crystalline substance, which I believed most likely to be methamphetamine.”

“Did you place him under arrest?”

“With some slight resistance, yes, I did. I then searched him and found two small bags of marijuana and a marijuana grinder.”

“Any money?”

“Yes, $250. And on the ground by his feet I found a black digital scale.”

“You mentioned Mr. Skaggs put up some resistance…?”

“Yes. I had to force him up against the wall. Officer Murray assisted.”

“Now, as to the scale, did it arrive on the ground as you were putting on the handcuffs?”

“Yes, it did.”

Then Officer Covella did a NARCO presumptive test on the substance and “it tested positive for meth.”

The next order of courtroom business was to go over Officer Covella’s training and experience in meth busts to qualify him as an expert in the people and practices of the Tweeker Community. This proved difficult with an experienced defense attorney like Al Kubanis pulling out all the stops to discredit the officer's bona fides.

Nevertheless, Covella rattled off a convincing account of his expertise and Judge Richey pronounced him expert.

Prosecutor Houston asked Covella his opinion of Mr. Skaggs’ case, and Covella said it was possession for sale.

Kubanis sneered, getting to his feet, and said, “Voir Dire, your honor,” meaning he wanted to challenge Covella’s competency as an expert. Kubanis went over all the points of training the witness had mentioned for Ms. Houston, then started to stray off the subject.

“Would it be fair to say that every time someone is arrested for possession of methamphetamine they are booked with possession for sale?”

“No,” Covella said.

“At what quantity does it become possession for sale?”

“It depends.”

“On what?”

Kubanis had begun his line of questioning with a view to challenge Covella’s expert standing. His next question — whether in this case there was any proof that the meth was for sale — was objected to on the grounds that it went beyond voir dire. Kubanis was disgusted with the whole thing, and plainly felt Covella should never have been qualified by Richey. He only had one more question:

“Have you ever qualified in any court as an expert before?”

“No.”

“Nothing further.”

Houston pointed out, “He has more knowledge than a lay person.”

“That doesn’t make him an expert,” Kubanis grumbled.

“I accept him as an expert,” Richey said, settling the matter.

Kubanis began his cross-examination of Covella in earnest.

“When you went to 136 Clara on December 17th, did you know what Shawn Johnson looked like?”

“I just had a rough idea.”

“And you did not have an arrest warrant, correct?”

“No.”

“When you arrived, who knocked?”

“Officer Dunn.”

“Did you see who opened the door?”

“Yes.”

“So you saw Jacob Holmes?”

“I think his name is Daniel?”

“Can you describe him?”

“A white male, brownish hair, around 14.”

“Did you see him in court earlier this morning?”

“Yes.”

“So you could be mistaken as to his name?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ask permission to enter?”

“Officer Dunn did.”

“You heard that?”

“Yes.”

“And didn’t he initially say, No you may not enter?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Well, did you hear Officer Dunn saying we have a warrant for Shawn Johnson?”

“No.”

“And Jacob said he was the only one there?”

“He said Shawn Johnson wasn’t there.”

“And what about Susan Holmes?”

“He said she wasn’t there.”

“Did he say you may not enter?”

“No.”

“And then Officer Murray called you and said he heard adult male voices in the back so you entered and exited through the back door. What did you see?”

“Jason Skaggs on the back porch.”

“And it’s your testimony that you did not know that Jason Skaggs was not Shawn Johnson?”

“Yes.”

“When did you know?”

“After I checked his California ID.”

“How long was that?”

“Forty-five seconds to a minute.”

“When was Shawn Johnson identified?’

“Within another minute. Officer Dunn ID’d him.”

“When Mr. Johnson was ID’d did anyone tell Jason Skaggs to leave?”

“No.”

“And you had no warrant for Mr. Skaggs?”

“No.”

“Is there a reason you didn’t allow Mr. Skaggs to leave?”

“He was standing there and I didn’t want him to interfere with the arrest of Mr. Johnson.”

“Well, isn’t it true he made no attempt to interfere?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t it typical to tell other people to just get away when making an arrest?”

“No.”

“Had you had any contact with Mr. Skaggs before this date?”

“Not that I remember.”

“With respect to your statement that you didn’t want him to interfere, he made no attempt to interfere did he?”

“I believe I’ve already answered that.”

“Answer it again, if you will.”

“He made no attempt.”

Kubanis, a retired navy officer, was acting like he was dressing down a midshipman on the deck of a warship.

“Now, Officer Covella, you’ve stated that the way you tell if a person has methamphetamine for sale is the presence of some kind of packaging. Did you find any packaging on Mr. Skaggs?”

“He had two small bags of marijuana… So if he took the marijuana out, then he could use that…”

“Did you ask him where the money came from?”

“No, I did not.”

“Did you ask if he was employed?”

“No, I did not.”

Officer Covella was turning sullen under Kubanis’s overbearing growl. Ms. Houston’s soft voice interrupted to ease some of the pressure from her witness. Officer Covella had begun to steam like a teakettle on slow boil.

Ms. Houston said, “Did the fact that Mr. Skaggs told you someone had just ‘given’ him the methamphetamine, have any influence on your opinion that it was for sale?”

“Yes,” Covella said with relief.

“And why is that?” Houston followed soothingly.

“Well, it’s very common for people to front it [the meth] to someone, but they don’t just give it away.”

“What would seven grams be worth?”

“About $700.”

“Did Mr. Skaggs have any cellphones on his person.”

“Yes. Two of them.

A text message on one of the cell phones from Ms. Holmes, said something like, “Do you have any? A friend needs some.”

Kubanis had heard enough. He jumped in with a series of sour remarks that earned him some words of reproof from the judge.

“And you found these words — with your vast expertise—”

“Objection!” Ms. Houston shot to her feet in a geyser of indignation.

His voice dripping with sarcasm, Kubanis said, “Well, he’s supposed to be such a great expert, your honor.”

In a quiet Watch-It-Buster voice, Judge Richey advised Kubanis, “You will not use that tone in this court again, counsel. I have qualified the witness as an expert. The objection is sustained.”

She stared long and hard at Mr. Kubanis until Kubanis sat back down.

Ms. Houston called her next witness, Officer Murray, who corroborated Officer Covella’s testimony, and in the end Mr. Kubanis didn’t put the kid who'd allegedly invited the cops in to his grandmother's house on the stand.

A resigned Kubanis said, “In light of Officer Murray’s testimony, I think the evidence of this young man, that he denied entry permission will have no standing with the court and we will submit on the evidence given.”

Judge Richey brought the curtain down.

“ The court will find enough evidence to hold the defendant for trial on 11578 of the Health & Safety Code, possession for sale of methamphetamine. Let’s set July 15th for filing the information.”

And let's hear it on the Fourth of July for what's left of the Fourth Amendment.

One Response to A Not-So Sunny Fourth

  1. Robber Correction Reply

    July 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I believe the other druggie in the robber was Ron Soares

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