Dozens of drug cases in Yuba and Sutter counties may be irreparably tainted and facing dismissal after a narcotics strike team officer and two associates were arrested on charges of transporting 247 pounds of marijuana to Pennsylvania.
Yuba County Deputy Christopher Heath, 37, was a lead investigator who filed numerous search warrants and directed raids in marijuana, methamphetamine and other drug cases for a five-agency Narcotics Enforcement Team in Yuba and Sutter counties.
On Dec. 29, Heath and two other men were stopped in York County, Pa. They were driving two pickup trucks loaded with 122 packages of marijuana with an estimated value of $2 million, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Penn Township Police Department.
Heath, who lives in Butte County, was arrested with two other Butte residents: his brother-in-law, Tyler Long, 31, and Ryan Falsone, 27, according to officials in Pennsylvania and California. Each has posted $1 million bail.
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The arrests, part of a regional drug-trafficking investigation in Pennsylvania, are now creating chaos for the court systems in Yuba and Sutter counties. California authorities say Heath, an investigator since 2013 for the Yuba-Sutter NET-5 narcotics team, was involved in more than 60 drug cases and prosecutions.
Now many pending cases are being reviewed for potential dismissal, and convictions may be overturned, district attorneys in both counties say.
“We are looking at the cases where Heath was involved to determine whether or not the cases can be approved” and stand, Sutter County District Attorney Amanda Hopper said. “If he is the only investigator who can testify to the evidence, then the case may be tainted to such a degree we can’t proceed.”
Hopper said Heath was the lead investigator on 21 drug cases filed in Sutter County since 2013. In neighboring Yuba County, District Attorney Patrick McGrath said Heath was involved in 40 to 45 cases, about half involving marijuana raids or arrests.
This is catnip for marijuana defense lawyers. It’s like straight vodka. You just know it’s going to blow it all open.
Heather Burke, Nevada City attorney representing a defendant in a Yuba County pot case
McGrath said numerous search warrants authored by Heath may be declared void. He said many cases the investigator worked haven’t gone to trial or no charges were filed. He didn’t know how many have resulted in convictions that now could be overturned.
“We want to identify what his role was and then send correspondence to the attorneys on the other side, saying, ‘This is the situation: Please review your files and bring whatever appropriate legal motions before the court,” McGrath said. “It could be a case where there is no impact on a conviction and it stands. Or it could be a situation where a conviction is reversed and the case is dismissed.”
The Yuba DA added: “Our goal is to get a handle on the cases in which he was the primary investigator and deal with those cases immediately.”
Some defense attorneys are already seizing upon Heath’s arrest to seek dismissal of cases.
“This is catnip for marijuana defense lawyers,” said Heather Burke, a Nevada City attorney who is representing a defendant in a Yuba County pot case. “It’s like straight vodka. You just know it’s going to blow it all open.”
The suspect in the case Burke is handling was arrested after a traffic stop and charged with unlawful possession of marijuana for sale. Burke, who questioned Heath in a November deposition, said the narcotics officer is a “material witness” who weighed and recorded some 30 pounds of pot seized at the stop. She has already contacted the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office to try to get charges dropped.
“Now that he has been caught in a clearly sophisticated drug operation,” Burke said of Heath, “I can’t imagine them taking this (Yuba) County case to trial.”
George Mull, a Sacramento attorney for medical marijuana advocacy groups and businesses, said Heath’s arrest stokes long-held suspicions in the cannabis community about rogue cops stealing pot in “smash and grab” raids on growers. “Perhaps some law enforcement officers are seizing cannabis not because they see it as a violation of law but to seize a valuable crop for their own benefit,” Mull said.
Hopper, the Sutter County district attorney, said authorities haven’t uncovered any evidence that the marijuana seized in Pennsylvania had been “confiscated in any investigation or drug bust” that Heath was involved with.
Hopper is the chair of the NET-5 drug enforcement team, which includes agents from the Yuba and Sutter sheriff’s departments, Yuba City police, California Highway Patrol and Sutter County probation department. As a result of Heath’s arrest, she said an audit is being requested by outside agencies into the entire operation of the NET-5 unit.
“This (arrest) raises concerns for the public as far as the integrity of our law enforcement officials,” Hopper said. “It’s something we need to address. We need to determine if this is an isolated incident. We’re not going to ignore the concerns the public has.”
York County, Pa., District Attorney Tom Kearney said Monday that Heath and his associates were involved in “a very sophisticated operation” to ship large volumes of marijuana. Authorities didn’t know Heath was a law enforcement officer until his arrest.
Along with sealed packages of marijuana and $11,000 in cash, the Pennsylvania authorities said they found Heath’s law enforcement badge and service weapon.
In California, authorities say a separate investigation is now underway by the Sheriff’s Office in Butte County, where the three suspects lived.
In Yuba County, Undersheriff Jerry Read said Heath was hired as a correctional officer in 2003 and promoted to deputy sheriff in 2007. According to public records, Heath earned $84,408.96 in salary and another $34,196.78 in benefits in 2014, the year after he was promoted to the narcotics enforcement team.
Read described Heath as “an average guy,” who was neither a decorated deputy nor a subject of discipline. He wasn’t under investigation in the counties where he worked, Read said.
“We are clearly disappointed, upset and angry,” the undersheriff said. “People ... will paint us with a broad brush because of the actions of one.”