Photo by Daniel C. TsangA recent drug sting in Irvine netted authorities three suspects, 11 marijuana plants and 11 grams of pot in a plastic bag. But it also turned upside-down the life of an innocent UC Irvine student when his over-the-counter pain relievers were mistaken for the club drug Ecstasy.
Filipino-American student activist Burt Nicholas Vera Cruz was drawn into the UCI police drug sting that nabbed a fellow Asian-American student for allegedly selling the 11 grams of pot. It turns out that 22-year-old Vera Cruz's only crime was being the suspect's housemate—and another pawn in American law enforcement's obsession with victimless crimes.
In addition to the pot and a set of nunchaku, campus and city of Irvine police who raided Vera Cruz's apartment across from UCI on April 24 found four capsules marked with the letter "E" in plastic wrapping stuffed inside a green plastic cup.
Three days after the raid, Vera Cruz and the roommate turned themselves in at the Irvine police station. Campus police Detective Jose Riveros asked if the pills found in Vera Cruz's bedroom were Ecstasy, a controlled substance. Vera Cruz says he told Riveros the capsules were Excedrin pain relievers he had packed for a trip he took with his girlfriend to Santa Barbara.
But Riveros' May 1 arrest report notes that Vera Cruz and his roommate "would not answer any other questions whatsoever." Vera Cruz believes that exercising his constitutional right to remain silent led frustrated officers to charge him with possession of Ecstasy.
Asked in his office about the incident, Riveros laughed. He defended his conduct by noting that Vera Cruz was never arrested. As for Ecstasy, he said, "Usually, you can tell what it is, but not always. The final decision on what it is is made by the lab."
Vera Cruz was not arrested, but no thanks to Riveros. In his report, Riveros asked the Orange County district attorney to issue an arrest warrant and charge Vera Cruz—not for Ecstasy possession but for cultivating marijuana found in a storage room on the apartment's balcony. The district attorney's office declined, but Vera Cruz eventually was charged with one count of Ecstasy possession. Two other Asian-American housemates were eventually charged on various marijuana charges. Both have pleaded guilty and have entered the county's drug-treatment diversion program. A third defendant awaits adjudication.
Unable to afford a private attorney (who, he says, wanted $1,500 upfront to defend him), Vera Cruz was assigned a public defender.
Facing a felony conviction disrupted his life. With a double major (Asian-American studies and sociology), Vera Cruz was worried he might not graduate. But despite the threat of jail time hanging over him, with his immediate family present, he participated in UCI's commencement ceremonies on June 17, receiving his bachelor's of arts degree.
Eleven days later, tieless but well-groomed, Vera Cruz listened calmly in Department H-2 in Harbor Court in Newport Beach as his attorney, Michael E. Perez, moved to have the case against his client dismissed on the basis of the Sheriff's Department's own lab test results, which showed the pills were not Ecstasy. Orange County Superior Court Judge Craig E. Robison concurred.
If he was ecstatic, Vera Cruz did not show it. He told the Weekly that while he was glad to be free, he was still "pissed" about the sting operation that nabbed his housemates. He wondered why it took weeks to do a lab test on the Excedrin.
According to Vera Cruz, the whole incident began with a sting operation at the campus bookstore, where he had worked before but where another housemate was then working—ironically—in security. Riveros, undercover at the time but using his real first name, Jose, had befriended the housemate. Vera Cruz says Riveros asked the housemate for marijuana. In a case that remains to be tried, the housemate allegedly sold Riveros 11 grams of marijuana.
Riveros, a young-looking 30-year-old trained in the LAPD, said the UCI police force has made combatting marijuana use a high priority.
For an undercover cop, he has a pretty public profile. In its June 7 issue, UCI News, the campus house organ, profiled Riveros on its front page as a cop with a rapport with students who "uses 'good sportsmanship' to solve on-campus crimes." It went on to describe him as a "quid pro quo kind of guy" and good-humored, who had joined the LAPD at age 21, "the youngest member in the history of the force."
Riveros came to UCI five years ago, but the unsigned profile suggests, "LAPD life . . . shaped him into a polished detective who can deftly elicit confessions from even the most recalcitrant suspects."
But when it came to Vera Cruz, Riveros was unable to get the student to confess to Ecstasy possession.
Vera Cruz's legal travails disturb Glen Mimura, one of the student's teachers at UCI. The sting operation was ridiculous and "a parody of the larger war on drugs, Disneyfied version," said Mimura, who teaches Asian-American popular culture. He wondered if the UCI police had nothing better to do with their time than to bust his student for Ecstasy possession—especially considering it wasn't Ecstasy.
"Are drugs really a problem on campus?" Mimura asked.
Crime statistics on the UCI police website suggest the answer is no (see www.police.uci.edu/statistics/uci99.html). On the main campus, there were only three narcotics felony arrests last year. With all the felonies charged in this one sting operation, the force can now claim to have already matched last year's total.
Vera Cruz vented his own frustrations in Filibusters, an alternative journal jointly put out by Asian and Latino students at UCI, which he helped edit. "I've been following the white man's laws for over 22 years, and where has it gotten me? Nowhere," he wrote. Writing about the court process, he declared, "Whereas I had built myself to become a 'law-abiding' citizen that excelled academically and careerwise, these strangers who never met me before, who don't know who I really am . . . had the power to put me in jail, slap a criminal record on me so that I can't get a job, and ruin the future I aimed for."
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