Former deputy sentenced to prison for role in DUI stings

February 19, 2014 6:45:43 PM PST
A former Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy convicted of aiding in the drunken driving arrests of three men who were set up by a private investigator was sentenced in federal court in San Francisco Wednesday to a year and three months in prison.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer told Stephen Tanabe, "Your decision to embark on this process was so outside the scope of what would be viewed as professional responsibility that it should have been an alarm.

"This was a case where what this officer did that was wrong was basically negotiating and receiving money or property to do his job, which he did. But he did so with the knowledge that the circumstances of the offenses were initiated by others," Breyer said.

Tanabe, 50, of Alamo, was convicted by a jury in Breyer's court last year of conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion related to a scheme by disgraced former investigator Christopher Butler to arrange the driving-under-the-influence arrests of three men in Danville in 2010 and 2011.

The men were husbands of Butler's female clients in divorce cases and the arrests became known as "dirty DUIs." According to testimony the trial, attractive women employed by Butler enticed the men to become intoxicated at Danville bars.

After being alerted by Butler, Tanabe arrested two of the targets as they drove away from the bars on Jan. 9 and 14, 2011. In the first arrest on Nov. 2, 2010, Tanabe was off duty and watched with Butler inside a bar as the man became intoxicated and then alerted a fellow officer to arrest the man after he began driving, according to trial testimony.

In two extortion convictions, the jury found Tanabe guilty of receiving an expensive Glock gun from Butler in exchange for making the second and third arrests.

But the jury acquitted him of a third extortion charge that alleged he received cocaine from Butler for the first arrest.

Tanabe was also convicted of three counts of wire fraud for text messages exchanged with Butler in the three incidents, and conspiracy to deprive the public of his honest services.

Tanabe, who did not testify at his trial, told Breyer today that at the time of the arrests, he believed he was carrying out his duty to protect the public and didn't think that he was doing anything illegal.

"I justified it in my mind that it was a legitimate arrest of drivers who were intoxicated. In my mind, I was arresting people who were breaking the law in the town in which I worked," Tanabe said.

He said he thought of the receipt of the gun as a "casual" arrangement and not a payment.

Now, Tanabe said, he realizes "I did something wrong and made a mistake. I accepted a Glock gun from Christopher Butler and I made arrests.

"All I ever wanted to do was be a cop and I destroyed that," he said.

Tanabe said he knew Butler's employees were observing the targeted men, but said he wasn't aware of the broader scheme to entice the men to drink too much.

Prosecutor Philip Kearney argued that text messages presented as evidence at the trial showed that there was "active participation and knowledge" of the scheme by Tanabe.

Tanabe's defense lawyers had asked for a lower sentence of six months in a halfway house plus six months of home confinement, while prosecutors had asked for three and one-half years in prison.

Breyer ordered Tanabe to surrender to begin serving his sentence on April 15. Tanabe will also be on supervised release for three years after he is released and must perform 240 hours of community service during that time.

"Law enforcement officers have enormous power. The police officer in day-to-day law enforcement must have the confidence of people that law enforcement will be even-handed," Breyer said.

Outside of court, defense attorney Alan Miller said no decision has been made on whether Tanabe will appeal.

Tanabe, Butler and others face three civil lawsuits filed by three men who were arrested. The cases are pending in Breyer's court and were stayed by the judge last year until Tanabe's case was completed. An attorney for two of the plaintiffs, Brian Gearinger, said he expects Breyer will now hold a status conference on the cases within the next few weeks.

Butler's drunken driving stings were part of a larger Contra Costa County corruption scandal in which he and former state narcotics squad chief Norman Wielsch sold drugs Wielsch stole from evidence lockers, arranged phony arrests and extorted money from prostitutes. Butler also placed hidden eavesdropping devices in the cars of clients' husbands.

Butler pleaded guilty in 2012 to seven charges and received a reduced sentence of eight years in prison in exchange for agreeing to aid prosecutors. He testified at Tanabe's trial and maintained he paid the officer for the arrests with both cocaine and the Glock gun.

Wielsch separately pleaded guilty to five charges and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Tanabe was charged only in connection with the three Danville arrests.

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