Duo Jailed For Pot Sold To Them By Uncle Sam

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Duo Jailed For Pot Sold To Them By Uncle Sam

Two Tijuana businessmen spent nearly a year in a Mexican prison for possession of marijuana that was sold to them by the U.S. Customs Service. At least that's the contention of a harrowing lawsuit filed against Uncle Sam by Francisco Rivera, 40, and Alfonso Calderon, 34.

Our story begins on January 25, 2001, when Customs agents arrested one Jose Jimenez Coronel as he tried to cross the border from Mexico at San Ysidro, California. (Below you'll find the U.S. Customs report of this arrest.) Inspectors found 27 kilograms (59.5 pounds) of marijuana stashed in the gas tank of Coronel's 1987 Nissan Pathfinder, which agents seized along with the grass. Coronel pleaded guilty to a state marijuana possession charge, served 39 days in the San Diego County Jail, and was sentenced to three years probation. The confiscated vehicle was auctioned on September 5, 2001 in a Federal Forfeiture Sale. The new owner, Rivera, paid $2600 for the Pathfinder, which was sometimes used by a Tijuana printing business owned by the family of Rivera and Calderon, his brother-in-law.

On January 24, 2002, Rivera and Calderon were stopped by Mexican authorities at a highway checkpoint north of Ensenada. They were arrested and thrown in jail after a search of the Pathfinder turned up 22 packages of marijuana hidden near the Pathfinder's wheel well. The pot weighed a total of 17 kilograms, or 37.5 pounds. Rivera and Calderon told investigators that the marijuana was not theirs--likely a routine refrain from arrestees.

Despite expert testimony that the seized marijuana's dehydrated and discolored appearance was consistent with pot that was "old or stored," a Mexican Federal District Court judge rejected the defense argument that the contraband was already in the walls of the vehicle when the Pathfinder was purchased at the U.S. government auction. In the judge's opinion, Customs agents--and their trained drug-sniffing dogs--could not possibly have missed the additional marijuana during the January 2001 search of Coronel's ride. Judge Blanca Meza found both Rivera and Calderon guilty of drug possession and sentenced each man to five years. A District Court judge in Tijuana later upheld the pair's convictions.

Last July, San Diego lawyer Teresa Trucchi filed damage claims on behalf of Rivera and Calderon with the Customs Service. Not surprisingly, the claims--which sought $18 million--were summarily denied. In December, Trucchi filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the California auction firm that sold the Pathfinder for the Customs Service, a Treasury division. Charging negligence, breach of contract, fraud, and infliction of emotional distress, the suit details the legal nightmare ensnaring Rivera and Calderon.

On January 10, a federal appeals panel in Mexicali overturned the Rivera and Calderon convictions, freeing the pair after nearly a year in a decrepit Ensenada jail where their bathroom was a ditch and even visitors had to undergo strip searches. All for some bad weed sold to them by the United States Government.