Carlos Arellano was a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department when the agency received a disturbing tip that he was fraternizing with criminals.
After months of investigating, the department accused him of being involved with a drug-trafficking organization, cultivating his own marijuana plants and discussing drug payments in phone conversations that fellow detectives overheard on a wiretap, according to court records.
In 2011, two years after the initial tip came in, Arellano was fired.
But an appeals court panel this week upheld the veteran deputy's efforts to keep his job, ruling that the law did not allow the department to use evidence gathered from the wiretap in a disciplinary proceeding.
Arellano's attorney praised Wednesday's appellate decision, saying her client has always denied he was the person heard on the wiretap and had been wrongly portrayed as "a bad guy."
"This case from the beginning was an overreaction from the Sheriff's Department," Elizabeth Gibbons said.
The deputy, who joined the department in the late 1980s, is on paid administrative leave and is not actively investigating drug crimes, said department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida. Last year, he was paid $130,000 in salary and other compensation, according to county records.
Nishida said the department is considering whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
The decision marks the latest setback for Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who has made several attempts to go to court to fire deputies like Arellano who were discharged for misconduct but won their jobs back after appealing to the county's Civil Service Commission.
The commission, a panel of five appointed by the Board of Supervisors, hears disciplinary cases against county employees and can overturn or reduce punishments. In the case of law enforcement officers, the commission's proceedings are not open to the public.
Last year, an appeals court panel ruled in favor of Daniel Genao, who successfully appealed his firing after he was convicted of filing a false police report. He earned $120,000 last year, according to county payroll data.
At least one other deputy has prevailed in court, while a third deputy's case is still on appeal.
The Sheriff's Department launched its criminal investigation into Arellano in June 2009.
The move came after a narcotics team investigating a known drug dealer had obtained a judge's approval for several wiretaps during an inquiry focusing on drug activity at the El Dorado restaurant in Palmdale. On an intercepted call, a person identified by investigators as Arellano spoke about obtaining cloned marijuana plants and demanded money from the restaurant's owner, who was a suspected drug distributor, according to the appeals court opinion.
The wiretaps revealed that the deputy was involved with a "drug-trafficking organization, that he obtained marijuana plants from the organization ... and that he maintained relationships with criminals and known narcotics traffickers," according to a court filing by the county summarizing its evidence against the deputy.
The criminal investigation into Arellano ended in 2010 without criminal charges. Under California law, conversations caught on a wiretap cannot be used to prosecute someone solely for marijuana activity, according to the opinion.
Sheriff's officials instead used the wiretap evidence to fire Arellano and accused him also of improperly releasing a man who had been jailed on a drug charge and refusing to provide information to help catch his brother-in-law, who was a federal fugitive, the opinion said.
But Arellano insisted he had nothing to do with the illegal narcotics activity and that the Sheriff's Department never proved it was his voice on the recording.
Gibbons, his attorney, said he became friendly with the restaurant owner as part of his job working in a sheriff's narcotics unit in the Antelope Valley.
At his appeal before the Civil Service Commission, Arellano argued that the wiretap evidence should be suppressed. A hearing officer agreed, saying the wiretap was authorized for use only in criminal court or a grand jury, not in an administrative proceeding.
A Superior Court judge, and now three appeals court justices, affirmed that decision.
The suppression of the wiretap evidence crippled the Sheriff's Department's case that Arellano violated department policies relating to fraternizing with criminals, obstructing an investigation, making false statements and other infractions.
What appeared to be undisputed, however, was that Arellano had used another deputy's password to access a database that contains confidential information about suspects and fugitives, the opinion said. The appeals court ruled a five-day suspension without pay was appropriate for the unauthorized use of the database.