Drug charges against Jesse James White could morph into a civil rights case, the Riverbank city councilman's attorney said after another legal setback Tuesday.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley refused to dismiss a felony cocaine possession charge against White after a brief hearing, but she hinted that a trial judge might want to further consider important evidence questions.
"You obviously have good issues (to present) at trial," Ashley told White's attorney, Mary Lynn Belsher.
White, wearing blue jeans and an untucked shirt, ignored The Bee after the hearing. But Belsher said she will appeal local judges' rulings all the way to the California Supreme Court, if necessary, based on her client's 6th Amendment right to fair proceedings.
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Belsher's main contention surrounds the amount of cocaine allegedly seized from White's downtown Riverbank apartment. A detective measured 0.002 grams, but an analyst at the Department of Justice crime lab in Ripon came up with 0.01 grams — five times the initial estimate.
At the June preliminary hearing, a detective said he used a manual scale with a "dragging" needle.
The gap means the difference between a trace and a usable amount, Belsher said. Because authorities could not explain the evidence chain of custody from the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department to the crime lab at a June preliminary hearing, Ashley should throw out the cocaine charge, Belsher urged Tuesday.
"Everyone here knows, the lab is under scrutiny for manipulation of drug testing results," Belsher told Ashley.
The Ripon lab has been under investigation since April when authorities found discrepancies in methamphetamine samples reviewed by a crime analyst. Some samples weighed less after he analyzed them.
The analyst, Hermon Brown, was placed on leave in late April. He had resigned by May 13. White was arrested May 14 after a probation search.
After Tuesday's hearing, Belsher said: "The Ripon lab is a dirty lab. No one knows what happened to the evidence. I know what happened; somebody manipulated it."
But Ashley declined to go against the June ruling by Judge Thomas Zeff, who ordered White, 21, to stand trial on the felony cocaine charge and misdemeanor possession of marijuana. She scheduled an Aug. 30 hearing, when both sides are expected to set a trial date.
That date could change if Belsher appeals decisions by Zeff and Ashley to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, within 10 days. Belsher cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings on evidence and said she will take the matter to the state Supreme Court if she doesn't win at a lower level.
White, elected in November 2008, finished last in a six-person race for state Assembly in early June. He was subject to search by authorities under terms of informal probation after having pleaded no contest in June 2007 to an alcohol-related "wet and reckless" driving count.
Belsher previously said her client was singled out as a victim of political prosecution.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.