When officers pulled over San Francisco’s alleged “Rideshare Rapist” after the bars closed early one morning last year, police told Orlando Vilchez-Lazo that his vehicle was swerving and made him blow into a breathalyzer.
But one of the officers who detained the former Lyft driver that morning, leading to his identification as a suspect in a series of heinous rapes, testified in court Monday that there were no signs he had been drinking.
In fact, Officer Jose Rosales said “yes” when asked by a defense attorney whether he lied to Vilchez-Lazo about the reason for the traffic stop.
Yet police used the spit Vilchez-Lazo allegedly left on the breathalyzer that morning as DNA evidence to connect him with the rapes.
The unusual circumstances of the traffic stop have raised concerns for Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland over whether police violated his client’s Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a “phony DUI investigation.”
Feinland has asked a San Francisco Superior Court judge to toss all of the evidence obtained against his client as a result of the traffic stop in South of Market on July 7, 2018. He argued in a motion filed last week that police “turned on their sirens and threw the Constitution out the window.”
“Rather than conduct a diligent and honest investigation to uncover leads, all the evidence in this case was collected as a result of the initial, blatant constitutional violations,” Feinland wrote. “Since all the evidence is ‘fruit of the poisonous tree, this court should exclude every piece of it.”
But Assistant District Attorney Lailah Morris argues that the San Francisco Police Department did not violate Vilchez-Lazo’s rights during the traffic stop and that, even if officers did, the evidence should remain intact.
“Although SFPD did not yet know his identity, they embarked upon an investigation that was inevitably going to lead to only one person — Orlando Vilchez-Lazo,” Morris wrote in court records last Friday.
Vilchez-Lazo, 38, is accused of raping four women between 2013 and 2018 while posing as a rideshare driver. The “Rideshare Rapist” allegedly preyed on intoxicated women, picking them up outside bars in San Francisco.
Judge Newton Lam held a hearing on the defense motion Monday that included testimony from officer Rosales and his partner, Officer Nicole Hicks.
Though Rosales admitted in court to lying about Vilchez-Lazo appearing to be swerving, he said the real reason he and his partner pulled the suspect over was because Vilchez-Lazo had committed a traffic violation.
“I only saw the traffic violation,” Rosales said in court. “I did not see him swerving.”
Rosales, then a rookie police officer just a couple months out of field training, and Hicks spotted Vilchez-Lazo near Howard and New Montgomery streets while searching for a suspicious vehicle with a description that matched his silver car.
Police had seen the car circling a bar for more than an hour “without picking up any fares, and instead focus intently on intoxicated women,” Morris wrote.
The officers were tailing the car at around 2:40 a.m. when Rosales said he saw Vilchez-Lazo make an illegal lane change.
But once the car was pulled over, Rosales said an inspector directed him to tell Vilchez-Lazo that he was stopped for swerving.
Feinland said Sgt. Mark Lee told Rosales to perform a breathalyzer test, saying, “I want his DNA.”
“Just tell him I don’t know, whatever,” Lee said, according to Feinland. “It’s easy, just DUI… Just tell him ‘we saw you swerving.’”
Feinland said his client blew a .00 percent on the breathalyzer, meaning he did not have alcohol in his system.
He was released and not arrested until five days later.
Vilchez-Lazo is facing numerous felony charges including rape by force and kidnapping. He is being held without bail in County Jail.
The hearing on the defense motion is expected to continue Tuesday morning with additional testimony from police.
The judge has been asked to decide whether to suppress the evidence and whether to invalidate search warrants police obtained against Vilchez-Lazo after the traffic stop.