Judge throws out most of evidence in alleged Pasco fencing operation

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldNovember 10, 2012 

Just seven of more than 300 alleged stolen items seized this summer from a Pasco auto repair business can be used as evidence in a case that police called a "massive fencing organization," a Franklin County judge ruled.

Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson said detectives went beyond the scope of the search warrant that allowed them to look for stolen property at City Lube, 301 W. Lewis St. And then he tossed out two more warrants obtained based on evidence found during the first search.

Defense attorney Michael Davidson challenged the search warrants served in August and asked Matheson to dismiss the case against his client, Jesus Arellano Chavarria.

Chavarria has been in the Franklin County jail since his Aug. 1 arrest.

Prosecutors and police allege Chavarria was running a fencing operation out of his downtown Pasco shop by buying stolen tools, construction equipment, wire and more. He has pleaded innocent to one count of first-degree trafficking stolen property and faces a Dec. 5 trial.

Kennewick police went to City Lube to search for stolen pressure washers, and officials said they discovered "hundreds of thousands" of dollars worth of stolen items. They said they linked some items to thefts and burglaries reported to Kennewick, Pasco and Richland police and Benton County sheriff's deputies.

Detectives from all four agencies spent days at the business taking an inventory of the items.

Davidson, however, argued that the search warrant only authorized a search of 301 W. Lewis St., but investigators violated that when they searched the warehouse at 311 W. Lewis St. and a lot on the other side of the building.

Two Pasco detectives who testified this week in court -- Scott Warren and Brad Gregory -- said they were not aware that they were searching two different properties. They described 301 W. Lewis as a compound surrounded by a fence, and said they accessed 311 W. Lewis by walking through a large open bay door from the compound.

Warren, who went down to City Lube to help Kennewick detectives get the initial warrant and had begun their search, said he wasn't aware of any other working doors that accessed the warehouse building that he now knows has a different address.

Deputy Prosecutor Tim Dickerson said the search warrant authorized a search at 301 W. Lewis of a blue building with a fenced lot that includes buildings and any vehicles on the lot that can conceal the stolen property detectives were looking for.

"The court has to put itself in the position of the detectives conducting the search," he said. "When you walk into this area and look ... it's logical for detectives to assume what's in that door and that wall is part of the same area that I'm allowed to search."

Davidson, however, said it should have been easy for officers to walk down Lewis Street and see the 311 address above the door to the warehouse. The only access to the lot on the other side of the warehouse was by walking around the building and cutting a lock on a fence, which should have clearly indicated it was not part of the business at 301 W. Lewis, he argued.

Detectives then got two more warrants based on items they found during the first search, and Davidson said even if they mistakenly searched beyond the scope of the warrant the first time, they could have corrected the error on the other warrants.

"The whole thing smells bad, your honor. No disrespect to the officer at all, I understand there were multiple officers involved from multiple jurisdictions ... trying to suggest there was a big crime here," he said. "One hand didn't know what they other was doing. My client's rights were violated. The case should be dismissed."

Davidson also noted in court documents filed with the court that of the 306 items seized by police, 261 were being returned to Chavarria because they could only identify so many items that they determined were stolen.

Chavarria testified that he bought tools and other items from dealers, pawn shops, flea markets, on the internet and from people around the Union Gospel Mission, which is next door. But, he said, he always asked if the items were stolen and wouldn't make a purchase if he got a funny feeling about the seller.

Chavarria was not at work when Kennewick police showed up with the warrant, but he said when he found out they were looking for pressure washers he retrieved them from another property where they were being stored.

He returned with the utility trailer and two pressure washers listed in the warrant and said he was surprised to see a large number of officers searching his business and the warehouse next door.

Judge Matheson questioned whether anyone actually read the first search warrant that was signed by Judge Bruce Spanner. If so, it would have been clear the warrant only allowed a search of 301 W. Lewis and the other building was clearly labeled 311 W. Lewis, he said.

"Other officers who searched ... should have read the warrant," Matheson said. "I don't think you can argue that they, in good faith, went into that other property. I'm not saying it was malicious, but what I do think is that the building was clearly marked."

Any search done beyond the property at 301 W. Lewis was improper and anything seized beyond what was listed on the original warrant shouldn't have been taken without being specifically requested in a second warrant, he said.

Davidson said because the inventory log did not specify where the items seized were found there's no way to know what was removed from 301 W. Lewis vs. 311 W. Lewis.

"Our position is the only evidence that should come in at this point are only items that were specified items on the warrant," he said. "The rest is fruit of a poisonous tree."

Matheson agreed, ruling that the only items that can be presented as evidence in trial are two red pressure washers that were identified based on serial numbers, a 2008 black utility trailer with a specific Washington license plate number, two pressure washer guns, 250 feet of black pressure washer hose and 500 feet of garden hose.

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