The prosecution of San Francisco’s alleged “Rideshare Rapist” will move forward after a judge on Wednesday ruled against a defense attorney who challenged the validity of search warrants at the center of the case.
Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland argued that the search warrants were based on DNA evidence that police illegally obtained from his client without a warrant by staging a phony drunk-driving investigation last July.
Orlando Vilchez-Lazo, 38, was arrested five days after the traffic stop when police matched his DNA to a series of rapes in which a man posing as a Lyft or Uber driver kidnapped and raped four intoxicated women.
But Feinland asked a judge to toss out the DNA sample and all the evidence that flowed from it as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
On Wednesday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Newton Lam ruled against a motion to quash and traverse the search warrants. He found that police had enough probable cause to obtain the warrants, even without the legally questionable DNA.
For the same reason, Lam declined to rule on another motion to throw out the evidence. Though he indicated that he disagreed with Feinland about the evidence being tainted, he said whether police illegally obtained the initial DNA sample was irrelevant to his probable cause determination.
Feinland’s motions had threatened to dismantle the case.
The traffic stop in question happened July 7, 2018. Plainclothes officers allegedly watched Vilchez-Lazo circle the block of a nightclub ,where some of the victims had been kidnapped, before pulling him over.
Police then made him blow into an alcohol-screening test as a means to obtain his saliva. Over more than three days of hearings last week, there was a dispute over whether police had reason to believe Vilchez-Lazo was intoxicated.
One of the lead inspectors on the case testified that Vilchez-Lazo had been driving erratically. But the test detected no trace of alcohol in Vilchez-Lazo’s system, and one officer testified in court that he was told by the inspector to lie about the reason for the stop.
Regardless, Assistant District Attorney Lailah Morris argued that police would have inevitably identified Vilchez-Lazo as the alleged rapist.
One of the warrants in question was for police to obtain an additional sample of Vilchez-Lazo’s DNA, and Lam found that there was probable cause for police to obtain it based on the “good police work” of investigators.
Before the stop, police had been collecting license-plate reader data from the area of the club that allegedly detected Vilchez-Lazo circling the area on various occassions.
Before administering the alcohol-screening test, police also asked Vilchez-Lazo for his identification. Vilchez-Lazo was later identified by a victim in a photo line up that included his Department of Motor Vehicles picture.
Feinland argued that all that evidence was tainted because police only connected the dots to Vilchez-Lazo after the DNA match.
With the ruling Wednesday and no decision on the motion to suppress, the case is expected to continue to preliminary hearing where a judge will decide whether Vilchez-Lazo will stand trial.
Feinland would then have a chance to return to the issue of the legality of the DNA evidence with a motion to dismiss.