A five-year nightmare ended for Vanessa Cerda earlier this month when a judge dismissed a longstanding criminal case against her. The 28-year-old Santa Ana woman faced 12 years maximum prison time for multiple drug and weapon possession charges, all allegedly for the benefit of a street gang. But deputy public defender Adam Vining asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Linda S. Marks on August 2 to exclude all evidence on the grounds Santa Ana gang unit officers illegally obtained it. Judge Marks granted the request, dismissing the case against Cerda shortly after, much to the disgust of Deputy District Attorney David Gallivan.
"I'm still in shock and disbelief," Cerda tells the Weekly. "I wanted to give up so many times."
The dismissal represents yet another victory in the years-long fights against various gang injunctions filed by Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) Tony Rackauckas and backed by various OC police departments. And it serves as a lesson for the many people entrapped by Rackackaus' legal trawling: have persistence, a good public defender, and a support group of activists emboldened by OC's jailhouse snitch scandal to take on Tony Rack.
Cerda's legal troubles began back on January 25, 2011 on Townsend Street in SanTana. That evening, gang detectives stopped Armando Verdin, her ex-boyfriend at the time, after he spotted them and ran through an apartment complex alley. Cerda took her children, including the daughter she had with Verdin, down the street around that same time to be babysat. Officers stopped Cerda to ask questions about where she lived and who fathered her kids; she told them what apartment she stayed at but that her kids were none of their business. A police report by detective Tyler Salo, though, claimed she had been questioned about Verdin specifically.
That wasn't the only stop for Cerda, nor the only contested version of events. Santa Ana police approached Cerda again when she was about to drive off after leaving the kids at the babysitter. They later claimed she had been illegally parked, but were more concerned with asking followup questions about Verdin, showing her pictures from his cell phone. In court documents, Vining wrote that they detained Cerda while searching her apartment, something she didn't consent to. He also argued Salo's claim to have obtained a warrant before going through Cerda's apartment, where Verdin also stayed, and another unit where they planned to move to was false and that they weren't obtained until after the search.
Detectives retrieved handguns, ammunition, marijuana, baggies of crack from the two apartment units . Two days later, the Orange County District Attorney's office brought drug, weapons charges with gang enhancements against Cerda and Verdin. Cerda pleaded not guilty; at a later motion, gang enhancements were thrown out for lack of evidence. That didn't stop prosecutors from trying two more times to tie her criminal charges to the Townsend Street gang, failing each time.
Along the way, the OCDA filed a gang injunction against Townsend Street in 2014. Cerda became an outspoken activist against it with the help of Chicanos Unidos, a Santa Ana grassroots group, when word of the injunction leaked early. She wondered if law enforcement tried to build the civil lawsuit against the gang at her expense. "Were they trying to gain another statistic for their gang injunction?" Cerda now asks. She says that police harassment only increased after her activism.
"I was there in Townsend when officer Salo talked about her case in front of everyone," says Chicanos Unidos member Gaby Hernandez. "For awhile, she was very outspoken, but felt targeted." In another incident, Townsend residents rushed to tell Cerda that Salo beat up Verdin during an arrest. She also took a teenager to the hospital that same night after cops allegedly clobbered him.
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Prosecutors eventually conceded that evidence seized from Verdin's detention, including his cellphone, had been unlawful. Public defenders unsuccessfully pushed for an evidentiary hearing with testimony in the case asking if police would have gone up to the apartments if not for what they learned in detaining Verdin. Last month, prosecutors moved to try Verdin and Cerda separately. Verdin took a plea deal saying Cerda knew nothing of the crime and is due in court next month.
Cerda arrived for her August 2 court date before Judge Marks. Around 15 members of Court Watch, a new group supported by the ACLU of Southern California specifically tasked with making sure Orange County prosecutors don't cheat, donned green shirts and filled the courtroom to support Cerda. "I didn't know what to expect coming in," says Court Watcher Hernandez. "The prosecutor tried to get Marks to send the case back to Judge [Michael] Hayes or to accept the evidence presented as is and proceed with the trial." Judge Marks did neither and the newly formed Court Watchers got to watch a victory. "I think our presence had an effect," Hernandez adds.
The legal battle had an effect on Cerda, too. "The case is dismissed and I'm happy, but what about all those years I lived like a felon?" she asks. Cerda had a warehouse job at Oakley's Foothill Ranch headquarters in 2011 while pregnant with her third child. She needed to take a maternity leave the following year but EDD denied her unemployment due to having a criminal case pending. Cerda had similar troubles finding new work when background checks brought up the charges against her, even if she hadn't been convicted. "I won, but this victory cost me a lot, my life, marriage and everything," she says.
Hernandez sees tremendous potential for Cerda now without the criminal charges hanging over her head. "This is only the beginning for her," the activist says. Cerda moved out of Townsend two years ago but wants to continue standing up for people in the neighborhood."They pushed me into this movement that I'm passionate about," she says. "I'm going to help out as much people as I can."