Along a winding stretch of the 5 Freeway near the Grapevine, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy James Peterson has built a reputation for sniffing out drugs.
In recent months, Peterson made at least six large busts, uncovering stashes of narcotics in cars he stopped for speeding and other minor violations. In one vehicle, he found a storage compartment stuffed with 28 pounds of methamphetamine and three pounds of heroin. Some of the men he arrested were armed.
They appeared to be the kind of needle-in-a-haystack discoveries that sheriff's officials wanted from Peterson and the handful of other deputies assigned to a small unit launched in 2012 with a tough mission: Interrupt the flow of drugs north from Mexico by picking off traffickers as they try to make it out of Los Angeles on the busy freeway.
But in court, some of Peterson's cases have crumbled.
Men he arrested have accused the 20-year veteran deputy of violating their constitutional rights by fabricating reasons for the traffic stops and the searches that turned up the drugs.
No judge has yet ruled on the claims, but in one recent case, evidence found by Peterson — guns and drugs — was thrown out when a judge decided that a video showed no legal grounds for his traffic stop. And in another, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office simply gave up, asking the judge to set free two men Peterson caught allegedly armed and carrying nearly two pounds of meth. Defense attorneys said they plan to challenge Peterson's arrests in the other federal cases.
Law enforcement records obtained by the Los Angeles Times show that concerns about Peterson's credibility were first raised several years ago in the U.S. attorney's office. In 2014, the federal prosecutor dismissed a case after concluding that Peterson's account of how he found the drugs was unreliable, according to an L.A. County district attorney's memo. Months later, the government dismissed another of Peterson's drug cases.
The district attorney's office ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that Peterson had willfully lied, but legal experts questioned why federal prosecutors would continue using him on large-scale drug cases.
"I would certainly have concerns about going back to an individual if there were questions about his credibility," said attorney Richard Drooyan, a former top official in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and a federal court monitor of the Sheriff's Department. "It is a significant matter whenever the office decides it has to dismiss a case because of doubts over an officer."
The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. In court, however, a top official in the office said federal prosecutors have never concluded that Peterson lacks credibility, despite the dismissals.
Sheriff's Capt. Holly Francisco, who oversees the department's Narcotics Bureau, said federal prosecutors had not informed her of the challenges to Peterson's credibility in federal court or the dismissed cases.
In response to questions from The Times about Peterson, a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman said in a statement, "We are not jumping to any conclusions and would caution any responsible party from doing the same."
Attorney Richard A. Shinee, general counsel for the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, declined to discuss the federal cases but defended Peterson's work.
"Deputy Peterson has been an extraordinarily effective investigator," Shinee said. "I know nothing concerning these allegations that should taint his credibility."
Peterson, who did not respond to requests for comment, has been assigned to the Domestic Highway Enforcement Team since its inception in 2012. The team trolls for serious criminals along a stretch of the 5 Freeway between Santa Clarita and the county line in Gorman.
Officially, the deputies are on the lookout for a range of criminal activity, including human and weapons trafficking. But in reality, most of the team's cases involve drug crimes, court records show. To establish his credentials in court filings, Peterson wrote that during his time on the highway team he has "actively arrested, assisted in the arrest, or investigated over 300 persons for drug trafficking related offenses."
Peterson's problems began in July 2014, when he pulled over an old Honda Accord north of Santa Clarita allegedly for drifting between lanes and having illegally tinted windows.
In his arrest report, Peterson wrote that he became suspicious after observing that the driver's hands were shaking and that he was sweating despite the air conditioning in the car. In a hidden compartment inside a stereo speaker, Peterson found three pounds of methamphetamine.
The prosecutor in the case abruptly asked the judge to dismiss the charges against the driver, Rafael Arellano, after Peterson changed his account of how he obtained consent to search Arellano's car.
In his arrest report, Peterson made no mention of speaking Spanish with Arellano. But after Arellano's attorney questioned how his Spanish-speaking client could have consented to the search, Peterson submitted a sworn statement saying he had asked for permission in Spanish and had called a Spanish-speaking deputy to the scene.
Later, he acknowledged to the prosecutor in the case that he had used Google's online translation program to ask for consent, according to the district attorney's memo. The Spanish verb "buscar" that Peterson said he ended up using when he asked Arellano for permission has multiple meanings, the memo said.
The U.S. attorney's office "expressed their concerns over Peterson's credibility" to sheriff's officials, who in turn conducted a perjury investigation, according to the memo.
The deputy district attorney who wrote the memo concluded that the investigation found no evidence that Peterson had willfully falsified his arrest report. He reasoned in the memo that the deputy's failure to mention his use of Spanish in the report was not necessarily inconsistent with his later accounts.
Arellano, who was in the country illegally, was deported.
Several months after that case was dismissed, another assistant U.S. attorney moved to have a second case involving Peterson dismissed only days after it was filed. In that case, the deputy had found nine pounds of methamphetamine. No reason was given for the dismissal.
Peterson was back in federal court late last year when prosecutors filed charges against two men he caught allegedly carrying 10 pounds of methamphetamine and a handgun. Over the next five months, the government filed at least five more cases based on arrests by Peterson.
U.S. courts have long wrestled with how much leeway the Constitution's 4th Amendment, which prohibits police from making unreasonable searches and seizures, gives officers working in highway drug interdiction programs like the sheriff's team. An officer must have a legitimate reason, such as witnessing a traffic violation, to stop someone. And if he then wants to search the car, the officer must either be given clear consent to do so or have a reasonable basis for suspecting something illegal is hidden inside.
According to each of his arrest reports, Peterson was squarely within the bounds that courts have set for the 4th Amendment. He said he pulled over five of the drivers for drifting between lanes and other violations such as speeding. The sixth, he said, was driving too fast and close to other cars.
And in each of the cases, Peterson wrote that the drivers either consented to a search or were acting nervously, saying that their hands were shaking and that they were sweating "despite being in a climate controlled car."
Defense attorneys have accused the deputy, among other things, of concocting the traffic violations and the drivers' suspicious behavior in order to justify the searches.
"Peterson manifests yet another dubious tactic to his already questionable law enforcement practices," one lawyer wrote in a court filing.
"Deputy Peterson is a liar who has lied to his supervisors, lied at work, lied to [federal prosecutors], and caused cases to be dismissed due to such lies," other attorneys representing the two men allegedly caught with 10 pounds of meth wrote in a court filing.
Prosecutors attempted to salvage that case against Cesar Castillo Flores and Manuel Moreno by sidelining Peterson. They opted against calling the deputy to testify at a hearing late last month and avoided mentioning claims he made in his arrest report that the men had been traveling 78 miles per hour and drifting between lanes.
Instead, prosecutors played video footage from Peterson's patrol car in court, arguing that it showed the stop was legally justified because the men had been speeding when he pulled them over.
The judge disagreed.
The video, which captures the minute leading up to the stop, shows Peterson traveling behind the men at various speeds. At one point, he reaches 73 mph, but his patrol car was closing in on the men's car. Their vehicle never crossed into another lane.
Because the government had failed to show the stop was legal, U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder threw out the drugs and gun as evidence. Days later, she ordered Flores and Moreno freed from custody. The government has yet to decide whether to dismiss the case or appeal the judge's ruling on the evidence.
In another case, a defense attorney argued that video and photographs contradicted Peterson's account that he stopped a Honda Accord because it had illegally tinted windows and swerved into another lane without signaling. After the car stopped and the driver got out, a passenger slipped into the driver's seat and sped off before crashing two miles up the highway. Deputies later found nearly 40 pounds of meth inside the vehicle.
Federal prosecutors defended the stop, saying video showed the Accord swerving. U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer declined to suppress the drugs as evidence, ruling this week that whether or not Peterson's stop was illegal didn't matter. Deputies were entitled to search the car after it fled and crashed, the judge ruled.
Last month, the government asked to dismiss drug and gun charges against two brothers Peterson pulled over. Peterson, another deputy and a sheriff's canine handler gave conflicting accounts of how the brothers' car was searched, according to court records.
Saying the brothers "are clearly guilty of the charges," U.S. District Judge John F. Walter said he disagreed with the government's decision but was obligated to dismiss the case.
"The government has made the decision ... that these guilty drug traffickers should no longer be prosecuted," Walter said.
Walter has another pending case on his docket based on an arrest by Peterson. Assistant U.S. Atty. Lawrence Middleton, the head of the Los Angeles office's criminal division, assured the judge that the government expects to proceed with that prosecution.