Three Santa Ana police officers are expected to enter pleas Monday on charges of petty theft and vandalism allegedly committed during a controversial pot shop raid last summer that was caught on hidden cameras.
Officers Nicole Lynn Quijas, 37, Jorge Arroyo, 32, and Brandon Matthew Sontag, 31, are charged with petty theft for allegedly stealing and eating protein bars and cookies from an Orange County marijuana dispensary while helping execute a search warrant last May.
Sontag faces an additional misdemeanor count of vandalism for allegedly smashing about $400 worth of surveillance cameras against the dispensary counters and cash register.
A secret system of cameras recorded a team of Santa Ana Police Department officers serving a search warrant last May at the Sky High Holistic marijuana dispensary, which was operating without a city permit.
Footage showed officers taking down surveillance cameras that were posted inside the marijuana shop. Some officers could be seen playing darts and one made fun of a disabled patron who was inside the store.
The criminal charges are pretty minor—most prosecutors would pass on cases like this but the alleged thieves are law enforcement officers, said Larry Rosenthal, criminal law professor at Chapman University.
That's part of what makes this case different, he said.
“It’s two fold: the first is that it makes a statement,” he said. “The second is that it makes it much easier to fire them if they are convicted of a crime.”
Rosenthal said when he was a federal prosecutor, the U.S. Postal Service would ask for charges to be brought against mail carriers accused of stealing $100 or so worth mail. The cases were too small for most federal prosecutors to care about but Rosenthal said they served a practical purpose.
“If the mail carrier was convicted, it would be very easy to fire them,” he explained. “Otherwise, if they had to prove it in administrative proceedings, it might drag on for years and you might have to pay these guys' salaries for years.”
The three Santa Ana police officers are on paid administrative leave while they go through the process of exercising their administrative appeals process, said Cpl. Anthony Bertanga, public information officer for the Santa Ana Police Department.
Three unnamed officers in August, through the Santa Ana Police Officers Association union, unsuccessfully sued the police department to keep it from using the hidden camera footage in an internal investigation.
Members of the Sky High Holistic filed a lawsuit in June claiming police used excessive force and caused more than $100,000 worth of damage.
If convicted on all counts, Arroyo and Quijas face a maximum sentence of six moths in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sontag would have to pay up to $2,000 in fines and spend a as much as year-and-a-half in jail.