A Half Moon Bay resident facing criminal drug charges relented and took a plea deal on Wednesday after a San Mateo County Superior Court judge ruled that he could be questioned about his gang affiliation.
The defendant, 32-year-old Raudel Garcia Villegas, was allegedly caught with marijuana and cocaine in November when he was driving a borrowed car with two other men along Main Street. Sheriff’s deputies pulled Villegas over for an unspecified traffic violation, and they reportedly spotted him maneuvering to hide something inside the car.
Searching the vehicle, the deputies reported they found a small baggie of cocaine and marijuana, some of which was scattered over the backseat and on Villegas’ shirt.
As he was being arrested, Villegas complained that the cocaine wasn’t his and the deputies had planted it.
Villegas is regarded by law enforcement as a Sureño gang member, and he was convicted for felony assaults in 2001 and 2005. He was also accused of burglarizing an El Granada house in 2004, but he was acquitted after the homeowner couldn’t identify him in court.
Villegas declined offers of a plea deal for the new drug-possession charges, and the case went to a jury trial earlier this week.
A court-appointed defense attorney, Tom Deremigio, questioned how the deputies could accurately deduce the drugs belonged to Villegas. The owner of the car Villegas was driving testified that the windows were tinted too dark for deputies to see inside.
One of the passengers in Villegas’ car was also set to take the stand to reportedly testify that the drugs didn’t belong to him. Prosecutors indicated that witness was a gang member and could be lying to protect another Sureño.
“The relevance we were saying was that you can’t trust this guy … he’s a close friend and a gang member,” said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. “He has a bias.”
Judge Clifford Cretan came back the following day and said he would allow the gang affiliation to be used in the courtroom questioning. At that point, Villegas and his lawyer capitulated and accepted a plea deal.
Speaking on Friday, Deremigio said the case was a losing battle if his client was cast as a gang member.
“It’s a highly prejudicial fact,” he said. “We resolved the case and therefore we’re moving on.”
Villegas pleaded no contest to drugs charges for a maximum of 32 months in prison with the possibility of parole. He will be sentenced at a hearing on July 24.