Embattled Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens, whose department has been severely criticized in the ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal and other controversies, announced Tuesday she will not run for re-election and plans to retire at the end of her current term in January 2019.
The news comes as her department faces multiple controversies ranging from a federal investigation into the use of jailhouse informants to the recent misidentification of a dead body. The state Attorney General's office also is investigating Orange County jailhouse informant issues.
“At the end of my current term, I will have spent almost forty years in law enforcement, including the last 10 ½ years as your Sheriff. I have made the decision not to seek re-election and will conclude my time as your Sheriff in January 2019.”
- Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens, in a news release Tuesday afternoon
“I look forward to continuing to lead the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over the next 1 ½ years and working with the men and women of the department to provide for the public safety of our community.”
The move has been rumored since at least earlier this year, after an appeals court ruled her staff systemically violated defendants’ rights through misuse of jailhouse informants and the U.S. Justice Department launched a federal civil rights investigation into the issue.
Hutchens is tentatively scheduled to testify in Superior Court next Wednesday, July 5, about her department’s handling of jailhouse informant records. The testimony is part of an ongoing, multi-week evidentiary hearing by Judge Thomas Goethals.
The last few days have also seen her department come under fire.
On Friday, news broke that her coroners misidentified a dead body, leading the family of a homeless man to mourn the loss of their loved one and bury the remains, only to discover weeks later their relative was actually alive.
And earlier on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report alleging widespread corruption and abuse against inmates within her jails. The civil rights group called on Hutchens to resign from office immediately, and Hutchens announced her plans for retirement a few hours later.
“The ACLU SoCal is calling on Sheriff Hutchens to resign and demanding that the Orange County Board of Supervisors establish an independent jails review authority to investigate the culture of violence and abuse in the OC jails and reform policies throughout the county jail system,” the group said in its statement Tuesday morning.
Hutchens’ staff disputed the report in a statement, calling it a “purposely distorted view of the Orange County jails."
Hutchens has led the department since June 2008, when she was brought in to help clean up the department after her predecessor, Sheriff Mike Carona, was indicted for official misconduct and later convicted of witness tampering. She won re-election in 2010 and 2014, and her term expires on Jan. 5, 2019. She formerly worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and is eligible for pensions from both Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Her retirement opens up the field for county sheriff candidates in 2018. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary, he or she wins outright. If not, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will take place in November 2018.
Among the contenders are Hutchens’ second-in-command, Undersheriff Don Barnes, who she publicly endorsed Tuesday to replace her.
“I am confident that Don Barnes will work tirelessly and effectively to keep the citizens of Orange County safe in their homes, neighborhoods, schools and places of business,” Hutchens said in a news release posted by Barnes’ campaign.
Paul Walters, a former Santa Ana police chief and current chief of staff to county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, was also rumored earlier this year to be eyeing a run to succeed Hutchens when she retires.
If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary, he or she wins outright. If not, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will take place in November 2018.
Hutchens grew up in Long Beach, and became a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in 1978 after serving as a secretary at the department.
She was promoted to sergeant in 1986, and went on to serve in the LA County undersheriff’s office and work as a watch commander and operations lieutenant at the sheriff’s Norwalk Station.
Hutchens was promoted to captain and commander of the Norwalk Station in 1999, before becoming field operations commander for multiple stations and an executive assistant to then-Sheriff Lee Baca. In a case unrelated to the Orange County controversies, Baca was convicted in March and sentenced to three years in federal prison for obstructing an FBI investigation of Los Angeles County jail abuses.
In July 2003, Hutchins took the top job overseeing the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's Office of Homeland Security and helped create the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, which shares information between the sheriff’s department, Los Angeles Police Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI.
Hutchens earned a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from the University of La Verne and trained at the FBI National Academy.
After Carona was indicted in a federal corruption case and resigned, Hutchens was appointed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors as sheriff-coroner.
Carona was accused of giving and accepting bribes, but was ultimately convicted of witness tampering.
After Hutchens took command in Orange County, five high-level sheriff’s officials filed wrongful termination suits against her, claiming she unfairly linked them to Carona’s wrongdoing. They lost their trial against Hutchens last year and the case is on appeal.
Hutchens was re-elected in the June 2010 and June 2014 elections. In 2010, she got roughly twice as many votes as each of her opponents, Bill Hunt and Craig Hunter. And she was the sole candidate in 2014.
She also serves as president of the advocacy organization for sheriffs of large U.S. counties, the Major County Sheriff’s Association. At the association’s gathering in Washington D.C. in February, President Trump publicly thanked Hutchens for her leadership, saying she’s “legendary” and has “had great service.”
Hutchens has endorsed District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who is also facing criticism in the snitch scandal, for his re-election next year.
In a statement Tuesday, Rackauckas said he has “tremendous respect for Sheriff Hutchens both professionally and personally.”
“I want to congratulate Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on her decision to retire upon expiration of her term and wish her the very best as she enters this new and well deserved phase in her life.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Caroline Zhu is a Voice of OC intern.