A Maricopa County detention officer tried to explain Friday why he and a fellow sheriff’s office employee swiped a document from a defense attorney’s file in a bizarre scene that was caught on courtroom videotape.
Detention officer Adam Stoddard sputtered nervously through his testimony at a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court, where he was ordered to give reasons for taking the document. For every reason he gave, however, he retreated just as quickly, contradicting himself throughout the two-hour hearing.
The whole thing surrounded a scene that took place in a Maricopa County courtroom on Oct. 19, all caught on a courthouse security tape.
The tape shows Stoddard walking to the defense table during a sentencing that day. He leans over the table and begins reading from a document in the file of defense attorney Joanne Cuccia, who was speaking before the judge and had her back turned to the table.
Stoddard can then be seen motioning to a fellow sheriff’s employee, deputy Francisco Campillo, and the two men pull the document from the file. Campillo leaves the courtroom with the document, then comes back moments later and places the original back in the attorney’s file. Cuccia quickly figures out what is going on and brings up the issue with the judge.
On Friday, Judge Gary Donahoe, the highest-ranking criminal court judge in Maricopa County, held the hearing to determine whether Stoddard and Campillo had the authority to take the document from the file.
Under state law, an officer can seize evidence or make an arrest if he sees a crime taking place. Essentially, that’s what Stoddard said he saw — or at least what he thought he saw — at the sentencing of Antonio Lozano on that day.
The detention officer, however, had a hard time sticking to his story.
Heat City was the only media outlet in the courtroom to watch Stoddard get picked apart by veteran Phoenix defense attorney Craig Mehrens and Maricopa County legal defender Maria Schaffer. The two were representing, respectively, the Cuccia and her client, Lozano, whose rights may have been violated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s employees.
At first, Stoddard testified that the document he yanked from the file — a handwritten letter — contained “keywords” that led him to believe Lozano was some sort of security risk. Later, however, the detention officer admitted the document had been reviewed by court or sheriff’s officials beforehand and was quite literally given a stamp of approval.
“I guess, yeah, he would be legally entitled to have whatever he had on him,” Stoddard said, adding that the letter had been “date stamped by a notoriety [sic notary] or the sheriff’s office.”
Stoddard also said he thought the document might have been somehow illegally passed between Lozano and his defense attorney. But later in the hearing, he admitted that there was really nothing unusual or illegal about a handwritten letter being passed between attorney and client.
The officer then invoked Lozano’s gang affiliation as a reason for thinking something sinister might be afoot.
“Lozano is a known associate of the Mexican Mafia,” he said. “The organization is known to operate in and out of the jails.”
He’s right. In fact, a member of the Mexican Mafia was recently accused of convincing two separate defense attorneys to smuggle drugs into the court and jails on his behalf.
But Stoddard later said this wasn’t an issue in the case because the paperwork that Lozano brought to court that day had been searched beforehand for drugs or other contraband. Sheriff’s officials had found nothing.
And so it went. Stoddard would say one thing to defend himself and then backtrack soon after. On several occasions, he told the court that pulling the document was “standard procedure.” Then later, he said it was the first time he had done it during his five years on the job.
By the end of it, it was unclear why Stoddard had really pulled the document.
One of the complication’s of the hearing was Donahoe’s decision that the handwritten letter falls under attorney-client privilege. Because of that, no one was allowed to talk about the contents of the letter, including the supposed “keywords” that possibly provoked the seizure.
This, Donahoe said, made it impossible for Stoddard or Campillo to mount a defense against a possible contempt of court charge. Donahoe said he would not even consider holding the sheriff’s employees in contempt for the seizure unless Lozano waived his attorney-client privilege.
“Unless you’re going to let these gentlemen fully defend against it, I’m not going to hold them in contempt,” Donahoe said.
Mehrens and Schaffer discussed it, but did not come to a decision. The waiver appeared unlikely.
Donahoe stopped the hearing after two hours, saying it would pick back up again next week. At that time, Stoddard will be questioned by Thomas Liddy, a deputy county attorney representing him and the sheriff’s office in court. Campillo, the sheriff’s deputy, is also expected to testify then.
Outside of a contempt charge, it’s unclear what kind of consequences Stoddard and Campillo are facing if the judge decides they were wrong in pulling the document.
Because of the uproar, Lozano’s sentencing for assaulting a fellow inmate was delayed. It’s possible Donahoe’s decision could affect that case.
Update (Nov. 7, 12:32a): This hearing continued on Nov. 7, 2009. To see what happened, click here.