On May 5, 1999, a police officer stopped a homeless man named Paul Phillip Magnan in his pickup truck in Santa Clara County, California. Magnan admitted he had no driver's license and the officer determined he was under the influence of an opiate. On June 11 of that year, officers approached Magnan while he was standing beside his truck in the company of a passenger, and determined that he was under the influence of a controlled substance. A search of Magnan's person revealed a small balloon of heroin and $300 in cash. Magnan's passenger admitted that she was under the influence of methamphetamine; and a white powder residue resembling methamphetamine was found in her purse along with a burnt piece of alum foil, a razor, and a mirror. In a search of the truck, officers found a Camel cigarette pack containing a baggie with 21.69 grams of methamphetamine. The police charged Magnan with possession of methamphetamine for sale; his passenger was released without any charges.
At trial, Magnan’s lawyer conceded that he drove without a license, was under the influence of an illegal substance, and was in possession of heroin – but denied the most serious charge-- possession of the methamphetamine for sale. The prosecution contended that the $300 found on Magnan must have been the proceeds of a drug sale, because he was a homeless man without funds. Magnan had told his lawyer that his mother wired him $400 the week before the arrest, but the attorney failed to investigate this claim or present it to the jury. Nor did the jury ever hear that the police had a report that the female passenger in Magnan’s truck was suspected of selling methamphetamine. In 2000, Magnan was convicted on all counts, and – because of prior robbery convictions – he was sentenced under California’s three strikes law to a term of 25-years-to-life.
Nearly six years later, on January 5, 2006, after numerous appeals, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge granted Magnan’s petition for habeas corpus. The judge ruled that the failure of Magnan’s trial lawyer to investigate and present evidence of the wire transfer from his mother deprived Mangan of a fair trial. Shortly afterwards, the Santa Clara District Attorney decided not to pursue the possession for sale charge. Magnan was resentenced for the less serious charge of possession of heroin, and sentenced to 6 years in prison – which he had already served, so he was released.
- Stephanie Denzel