Wednesday, June 13, 2001
Ninth Circuit Opinion Details Inmate ‘Cell Phone’ System
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A makeshift communications system inside downtown’s federal Metropolitan Detention Center, used by at least one inmate to pressure another into changing her testimony, drew the spotlight yesterday in an opinion by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Judge Pamela Ann Rymer described a “cell phone system” through which inmates address each other en masse through the ventilation shafts, make cell-to-cell calls through emptied plumbing pipes and hang up by flushing the toilet.
The ruling came on a case of first impression to the Ninth Circuit and involved the interplay between sentencing guidelines for witness tampering and those for the underlying offense.
But the import of the opinion may have been overshadowed by evidence produced at trial and discussed by Rymer concerning the defendant’s use of the communications network, which is well-known to jail administrators, defense lawyers and, presumably, prosecutors.
Carlos Arias, who was awaiting trial on drug and gun charges, was able to contact his ex-girlfriend in another cell, pressure her to “open the pipes” for a direct “call,” and make threats against her children if she did not agree to retract her statements against him, according to prosecution evidence.
There was a separation order between Arias and the ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Trujillo.
“[B]ut it turned out that Trujillo was housed in the women’s unit referred to as 9-North and Arias was housed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) on 8-North, directly underneath Trujillo,” Rymer said.
Arias apparently knew that he had a direct plumbing line to Trujillo, who stood accused of participating in an Orange County drug ring that was responsible for the deaths of two drug dealers. Trujillo agreed to plead guilty to two lesser counts in exchange for her cooperation against Arias and a third suspect.
While Trujillo was in her cell, she was contacted through the more “public” air vent system by someone identifying himself as “Chuko,” who told her to “take the water out, or I’m going to put all this business on the vent.”
Trujillo feared that other inmates would target her if they learned of her cooperation with prosecutors, so she removed the water from the pipe and found Arias on the other end.
Arias told her to “call my attorney and tell him that you lied,” then, in apparent reference to her children, said:
“Who lives in Riverside? Who lives in Anaheim?
Trujillo, worried that approaching officers would hear her, hung up by flushing the toilet.
During a subsequent “call,” Arias became concerned that his conversation with Trujillo was being taped, so he hung up by flushing.
Arias was later transferred to another cell without communication links to the other inmates, and asked a guard to be transferred back so that he could talk to someone he called Elizabeth.
By the time Arias went to trial on the drug and gun charges, a new indictment had been filed charging him with witness intimidation with intent to prevent testimony. The jury convicted him on that charge, but hung on the other counts. On retrial, he was acquitted on the drug and gun charges.
In sentencing, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi of the Central District of California declined to impose what is known as a “cross reference” between the guideline term for witness tampering to the term for the drug and gun offenses since he was acquitted on those charges and could not be found to have committed them by a preponderance of the evidence.
“However, the cross reference applies without regard to whether the underlying offense is provable,” Rymer said in explaining the remand ruling.
Federal Bureau of Prisons administrators were unavailable for comment yesterday on the Metropolitan Detention Center’s “cell phone system” and any practice jail officials might have of purposely putting alleged co-conspirators on the same plumbing line to monitor them.
U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said his office does not “go into the prison system” to monitor cells for evidence in their cases, and said he was not personally aware of the Bureau of Prisons setting up air shaft or plumbing links for that purpose.
“I’m sure inmates have come up with ways to communicate with each other,” Mrozek said. “I would not be surprised that they do it at MDC, that they do it at Lompoc, and that they do it in the state prison system. I’ve seen it on TV, and I’m assuming it’s true. But I don’t have any personal knowledge of it.”
The case is U.S. v. Arias, 00-50318.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company