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California Cops Impersonate Prisoners to Obtain Evidence, Confessions

by Ed Lyon 

It is not uncommon to see police officers on TV shows masquerade as criminals to obtain evidence and even confessions from suspects. Many people may not be aware that this is an example of art imitating life. Such law enforcement practices were vigorously challenged in the latter half of the 20th century, with an eventual ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1990 that upheld their legality.

The gist of the decision was that a police officer pretending to be a criminal did not constitute compelling a suspect to speak if the cop was passively listening and would not have heard anything that other people within earshot could hear. Subsequent cop-planting schemes became known as Perkins Operations, named after the losing appellant in the Supreme Court case. See: Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292 (1990).

On February 3, 2019, three teenagers and a 25-year-old man were shot to death in Palm Springs, California. The teens were in a car that had collided with a parked jeep, and the adult victim was found about half a mile away. Jose Larin-Garcia, 19, was discovered nearby, hiding under a truck and wearing bloody clothes. He was later allowed to leave a hospital after cops were unable to discern probable cause to hold him. A gang task force arrested him the next day trying to board a Florida-bound bus with a ticket bought under an alias name; an earlier search of his home uncovered a gun, a large amount of ammunition and an illegal high-capacity magazine. 

A Perkins Operation commenced the following day when “law enforcement agents were placed inside the cell” with Larin-Garcia, according to Riverside County Sheriff investigator Jarred Bishop. Larin-Garcia reportedly told the cops who were pretending to be fellow prisoners that “he knew he was screwed, was afraid his mother might also be charged in connection with the murders” and believed a gun had been found at the crime scene.

Regarding the legitimacy of Perkins Operations, California defense attorney Joseph Tully noted, “There’s no expectation of privacy in a jail cell.” He added a case might be made if the prisoner already had an attorney before a Perkins Operation began, but even then, if the suspect freely and voluntarily spoke, it would be difficult to challenge evidence obtained through such an operation. 

California’s jails do not have policies prohibiting Perkins Operations, which are deemed “special operations” overseen by the law enforcement agencies conducting them, according to California Board of State and Community Corrections spokesperson Tracie Cone.

Larin-Garcia has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and other charges, and is being held without bail at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Facility. A March 14, 2019 news report indicated he will undergo a psychiatric evaluation. 



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