Judge: Police use of fake paperwork was lawful

Frank Godinez smiles during a hearing Tuesday regarding a misconduct motion filed by his defense in Superior Court in Santa Maria.

Daniel Dreifuss/Staff

A Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that Santa Maria police did not break the law when they tricked a county jail inmate into providing information that resulted in his arrest for murder.

However, the police officers and prosecutors involved walked the legal line, according to Judge James Rigali.

In April, police consulted with attorneys from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office before handing inmate Frank Godinez a ruse affidavit that contained false information about him, along with a legitimate search warrant signed by a judge.

Godinez had a conversation with his jail cellmate about the affidavit, without knowing the cell mate was wearing a hidden microphone and was working for police.

As a result, Godinez, then 31, was booked in November on suspicion of murdering Michael Christie, 37, on Dec. 10, 2005.

Godinez’s attorney, Bradley Cornelius, filed a motion seeking sanctions for prosecutorial and police misconduct based on the use of the ruse affidavit in combination with a legitimate court document. Investigators regularly lie to criminal suspects to get them to make admissions, but Cornelius challenged the use of the ruse affidavit because of the way it was presented with court paperwork.

The District Attorney’s Office opposed the defense motion, and Rigali ruled in the prosecution’s favor even as he cautioned the District Attorney’s Office and police against similar activity in the future.

“I have told the prosecution I don’t think this makes sense,” he said after denying the defense motion Tuesday afternoon. “You can do all the fake stuff you want, but you’re not going to do it with the judges.”

Rigali announced his decision in Superior Court in Santa Maria after hearing from witnesses called by both the defense and the prosecution over the course of several hours, as well as listening to arguments from both sides and considering paperwork filed by each.

The criminal case is moving forward, with a routine hearing slated for March 6. At that time, a discussion is expected regarding who will represent Godinez in the future. Cornelius is leaving the conflict defense counsel team assigned to defend Godinez.

Several Santa Maria police detectives testified Tuesday under questioning by Cornelius, talking about their involvement in creating and providing Godinez with the ruse affidavit.

The affidavit was created with the intention of encouraging Godinez to make admissions to his wired cell mate, according to the detectives.

The detectives said they consulted with then Chief Assistant District Attorney Ann Bramsen before giving Godinez the affidavit.

Sgt. Dan Cohen testified that he’d never used a ruse affidavit before the one in the Godinez case.

Bramsen was also called as a defense witness Tuesday, and acknowledged talking to Cohen hypothetically about such a ruse affidavit.

“In my opinion, there was no violation,” she said under cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser, but earlier testified that she could find no published case law that addressed the exact same situation.

Court documents filed by the defense concerning its motion for sanctions for prosecutorial and police misconduct could not be obtained because the file is unavailable for viewing at Superior Court, and Cornelius opted not to provide a copy of the motion.

However, the District Attorney’s Office provided a copy of its opposition to the defense’s motion.

In it, prosecutors wrote that on April 6, 2011, a search warrant was signed to collect DNA from Godinez in reference to a March 13, 2011, stabbing. Before preparing a ruse 

affidavit, Cohen spoke with Bramsen about the concept of creating an affidavit that contained some fabricated incriminating information, and giving the suspect the affidavit to try to stimulate conversation about a crime.

Bramsen reportedly told Cohen that the ruse would not be considered coercive because there would be no interrogation, and she didn’t believe the affidavit would violate a criminal defendant’s Constitutional rights.

In the basement jail of the Santa Maria court complex, Godinez, already in custody on other charges, was given a copy of the ruse affidavit at the same time he was handed a copy of the DNA search warrant signed. 

The affidavit contained information, both true and false, that implicated Godinez in the March stabbing and Christie’s murder, according to the prosecution’s filing.

Godinez was housed in a jail cell with a wired police informant who was also a gang member, according to the filing, and Godinez read the ruse affidavit with the informant.

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“The defendant made several incriminating statements acknowledging some of the information contained in the affidavit to be true and denying some of the information that had been fabricated,” the prosecution wrote.

On April 12,  Godinez was charged in connection with the March stabbing. In November, he was charged with murdering Christie.

In support of its opposition, the District Attorney’s Office said that Godinez failed to back a violation of his rights because he was not subjected to a custodial interrogation and had not been arrested in either the stabbing or the murder of Christie.

Cornelius argued in court Tuesday that police using documents signed by a judge as a tool to obtain information from suspects called into question the court’s impartiality.

In addition, Cornelius said, the ruse affidavit contained names and information that could put witnesses’ safety at risk.

A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria recently ruled in a separate criminal case against Jesus Quevado that the use of a ruse affidavit constituted misconduct.

In that case, which involved a Santa Ynez home invasion robbery, a fabricated affidavit was handed to Quevado along with a valid search warrant face sheet.

Judge Kay Kuns wrote in her Dec. 12 ruling, “In using a valid search warrant face sheet, law enforcement intended the false affidavit to be viewed as part of a valid search warrant.”

She continued, “Does this type of ruse erode the integrity of the judiciary and its orders? It appears so. The Appellate Courts have particularly scrutinized and criticized misconduct that takes place within the walls of the courthouse.”

“Defendants are aware that law enforcement may attempt to trick them by telling them false statements or presenting them false documentary evidence. The difference is in allowing a portion of a valid court order to validate these false statements or evidence. The Court believes that it does shock the conscience when law enforcement, which is entrusted with protecting the public, does something that unnecessarily endangers members of the public, even unintentionally. Such conduct cannot be allowed.”

Kuns wrote that the misconduct in the Quevado case did not justify a dismissal of the case. However, she ordered that any evidence seized by the ruse be excluded.