OC Sheriff Evidence Booking Scandal Expands With 15 More Investigations of Deputies Disclosed

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Sheriff Barnes speaks to reporters on March 6, 2020 at his first monthly media briefing.

Evidence booking problems at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department were more widespread than previously known, with Sheriff Don Barnes disclosing on Friday that there are 15 new criminal investigations of sheriff employees.

Six of the cases have already been referred to the District Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.

The new investigations are in addition to 17 criminal investigations that previously were referred to the District Attorney’s Office, a sheriff’s spokeswoman confirmed.

The DA’s office has not prosecuted in 15 of the 17 prior cases that were referred to it, and has since launched their own review of the evidence booking scandal. 

Barnes announced the new investigations at a news conference Friday as he resumed monthly media briefings that were paused in recent months during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 15 new investigations “are predominantly focused on drug-related paraphernalia that was either booked late, or potentially not at all,” Barnes said, adding that none included weapons or cash.

Six cases were referred to the DA’s office for a decision on criminal charges, with the other nine cases still under internal criminal investigation by Barnes’ department.

“As a result of the District Attorney’s request to expand the audit to three years, we have received additional files to review to determine if criminal charges are warranted. That review is underway,” said DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds. She said that’s all she could say at the moment, when contacted for comment Friday afternoon.

So far, two deputies have pled guilty to willfully failing to perform their official duties. 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.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders said the Sheriff’s Department had tried put the issue to rest last year, and only examined more cases to look for violations because of public pressure to do the right thing.

“They had put this to bed a year ago. And only because motions were brought and the press reported on it, did they open it back up,” Sanders said Friday.

“It’s good to hear there are additional investigations. But the folks who have been studying this from the beginning are not going to have a lot of faith in the investigations themselves,” he added.

“There’s definitely no reason to believe the Orange County District Attorney’s Office is going to prosecute everybody who should be prosecuted. When somebody with 72 felony-grade charges only ends up with one misdemeanor – and only after we call out that he wasn’t being prosecuted – it’s hard to put any reasonable faith that the District Attorney’s Office is going to prosecute everybody they should be, and prosecute them to the extent of the law that they should be prosecuted.”

In response to Sanders’ criticisms, the DA’s spokeswoman said the office prosecutes “when we can prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Sheriff’s Department’s spokeswoman, Carrie Braun, said the department has taken the evidence booking problems seriously.

“The Sheriffs Department identified the issue, investigated, and has held individuals accountable. Five deputies from the first investigation have been terminated,” Braun said.

“The Sheriff has taken this issue seriously, addressed it, and implemented safeguards and protective measures to ensure it does not continue.”

The union that represents sheriff’s deputies, sergeants and District Attorney investigators said the evidence issues stemmed from evidence booking areas being located far from where many deputies worked.

“We stand behind the good faith of our deputies. It is clear that department booking procedures and deputy training were inconsistent and seriously flawed,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in a statement Friday about the 15 new criminal investigations.

“Recent investigations highlight a number of department problems, such as requiring deputies at many facilities to complete reports in one location and then having to go to another location for the actual booking of evidence. Often, deputies must stop report writing in order to respond to emergency calls, causing the booking of evidence to be delayed,” he added.

“The number one priority for deputies is immediate response to emergency calls, even though paperwork and evidence booking may be postponed. Public safety demands no less. We are working with the Sheriff’s department to correct and improve the evidence booking policies and procedures to fix these institutional deficiencies.”

For nearly two years, Orange County supervisors and the public were kept in the dark about a widespread evidence booking crisis at the Sheriff’s Department, which has the potential to affect thousands of criminal cases.

Sheriff officials say they learned of evidence issues in January 2018, and launched an audit the following month that found hundreds of cases where deputies failed to follow policy in booking drugs, cash, photos, and videos in criminal cases by the end of their shift.

In nearly 300 instances, the audits found evidence was booked more than a month late. The delays can raise questions about whether evidence was contaminated and the ability of prosecutors to verify to courts that evidence was truly collected. And in at least 57 cases, a second audit found deputies lied about booking evidence that they did not actually book.

The last of the audits was completed in February 2019, according to sheriff officials. But none of it became public until November 2019, when the Orange County Register published an article about the findings. On that same day, sheriff officials told county supervisors about the evidence problems apparently for the first time, noting a news story was coming.

On Friday, Barnes said the follow-up review of cases for evidence problems is now over.

“We also recently completed an evidence audit, in conjunction with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. We reviewed 22,000 cases. After those reviews were completed they identified 15 additional criminal investigations,” Barnes said at the news conference.

Sanders contends the scope is still too narrow, given how widespread the problems were.

“Literally 1,100 deputies booked evidence late, and that was only doing a partial audit. So there should be hundreds more deputies subject to prosecution,” Sanders said.

Barnes said the Sheriff’s Department has changed its evidence-handling procedures to make sure these booking problems don’t happen again.

Those changes, he said, include creating a records and property division, random “spot checks” by sergeants to ensure evidence is being booked properly, and requiring deputies include in their reports receipts showing evidence was booked, which is then reviewed by supervisors.

“We do take these matters very serious,” Barnes said, adding his department has taken action “to remedy this circumstance and ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.