Two former Orange County sheriff’s deputies accused of making multiple false statements in police reports about whether evidence was booked were charged with one misdemeanor each, pleaded guilty, and will not serve jail time or pay a fine, prosecutors announced Monday.
Deputy Bryce Simpson made false statements in 74 different police reports about whether evidence was booked, the DA’s office said earlier this year. Deputy Joseph Atkinson was also found to have made false statements about booking evidence.
It’s a felony under state law for a law enforcement officer to knowingly make a false statement in police report.
Under their plea deals with the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the two former deputies were each charged with one misdemeanor count of willful omission to perform an official duty, with sentences of one year of informal probation.
“The public has an absolute expectation that their law enforcement officers will carry out their duties lawfully,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement Monday afternoon announcing the charges and plea deals.
“When law enforcement officers break the law, it deprives defendants and victims of their rights, compromises the criminal justice system, and erodes the public trust in ways that it may never be able to recover. The entire system relies on the trust that those sworn to uphold the law are following it themselves.”
Others are criticizing the DA, saying the deputies should have been charged with felonies and that Spitzer is letting law enforcement officers off easy at a time the public is calling for more accountability.
“It just makes a mockery of the justice system,” said Scott Sanders, the public defender who first brought to light the evidence scandal.
“If a regular citizen walked into the police department and filed dozens of false police reports, they would be on their way to prison. In Orange County, the people who should be held to a higher standard don’t have to serve a single day in custody. They don’t even have to do an hour of community service,” he added.
“[The two deputies] absolutely dishonored their badge and engaged in incredible misconduct in case after case that qualifies for felonies, and they made this backroom deal, so that they would not have to feel a slap on their wrist…For the District Attorney’s office to hold this out as accountability is embarrassing. And to do it in this time period when all eyes are focused on creating a justice system where all officers are held to a higher standard, it’s frankly astonishing what they just did.”
Sanders said that under informal probation, the deputies can have the guilty plea expunged if they come back after a year with no new law violations.
“In one year, it’ll come off their record…almost for sure. It’s disgusting. I mean it’s truly disgusting…Here you have report after report with false information. With many many many defendants. And this is your version of justice? It’s shameful.”
In response, Spitzer said the deputies now have criminal records and lost their jobs.
“Our job is to do what is in the best interest of justice, and that includes reviewing the totality of the circumstances. As a result of their actions, these two men now have criminal records and they are no longer deputy sheriffs,” Spitzer said in a statement responding to Sanders.
“These deputies were terminated for violating department policy. Our job is to decide whether their actions were criminal,” added DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
“It is the height of irony that Mr. Sanders who goes to court every day arguing for leniency for his clients is now arguing that the District Attorney’s Office is not being harsh enough,” Edds said.
Sanders said the deputies’ misconduct requires accountability that’s far stronger than losing their jobs, and that under the plea deal the deputies can make their criminal records go away after a year.
“Of course you lose your job. You should lose you job if you file one false police report…you file 70? …[And] you don’t even have to go into the streets and pick up garbage. I mean that’s not paying a price….you can’t write false police reports as a police officer.”
“They’re not on formal probation…they don’t have to do anything. Zip. Zero.”
In a statement, the deputies’ attorney said an investigation found the violations were due to paperwork backlogs as they tried responding to multiple emergency calls.
“Both deputies cooperated with the investigation of the 2017 failures to accurately reflect the booking status in reports,” said Paul S. Meyer, who along with attorney Lolita J. Kirk represented Simpson and Atkinson.
“The investigation revealed that these errors were not related to any other improper conduct, and that the intention of the deputies was to respond as quickly as possible to multiple emergency calls, causing paperwork backlogs which resulted in the violations,” Meyer added.
Spitzer said earlier this year he was personally reviewing the evidence against Simpson and Atkinson – and 15 other deputies found to have engaged in evidence misconduct – to decide whether to file charges.
The union for OC sheriff’s deputies, which also represents the District Attorney’s office’s investigators, said the false statements were errors that resulted from problems with how deputies were trained.
“The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs is working with the department to address the inadequate training in booking and record date reporting which resulted in this problem,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the union, in a statement about the guilty pleas.
“We are currently working to improve the property and evidence policy with the department. Unfortunately, there were issues over the training for deputies that contributed to these errors.”
Sanders says the DA’s office is failing to truly hold law enforcement accountable.
“It’s just gross,” he said.
“In this moment, where the whole world is trying to figure out how to make things better, in terms of a better police force and better police accountability…you couldn’t send a more wrong message,” Sanders added.
“If you can get away with it on  false police reports, you can pretty much get away with it for anything.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].