The most-prosecuted crime in Orange County is possession of drug paraphernalia for using drugs, such as meth pipes, according to local court data Voice of OC requested and obtained.

The paraphernalia charge was filed in about 8,200 separate cases in the most recent fiscal year ending in mid-2020 – more than any other alleged crime, the data from OC Superior Court shows.

The nature of the most-prosecuted crime does not appear to have gotten any public questions or discussion among top county officials in recent memory.

OC sheriff officials wouldn’t disclose data on the most common charges that land people in jail unless Voice of OC paid at least $1,000 for “custom programming” to extract it from a database.

But Orange County’s Superior Court provided similar data for free – showing the most common charges filed each year – in response to the news agency’s request.

The top law enforcement officials in Orange County – DA Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes – have called for reforms to how drug addiction is handled by law enforcement, with Spitzer saying treatment should be offered instead of prosecution.

Barnes and Spitzer didn’t return messages seeking comment about the large scale of prosecutions for possessing meth pipes and other drug use devices.

A retired police lieutenant says the data shows a massive amount of public safety resources are being spent going after people for their addictions without addressing the underlying causes.

“The staggering number of cases prosecuted in Orange County for low level drug paraphernalia arrests is indicative of a justice system that ignores the root causes of substance use disorder, while wasting fiscal resources that are better spent on preventing death, disease and addiction,” said Diane Goldstein, who serves as executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

Orange County supervisors, who control how taxpayer money is balanced between criminal justice and treatment services, this week called for changing how drug and mental health issues are policed – as part of a statement “acknowledging the grave harms of racism.”

“We will not allow racism to perpetuate through inaction,” the supervisors said in their unanimously-approved resolution.

“We believe in a re-examination of policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact,” the resolution added, saying the supervisors would work with law enforcement and “institute proven approaches” to working with drug and mental health issues.

The county supervisors – whose biggest campaign spenders are the sheriff’s deputies’ union – didn’t say what action they would take to follow up on their promise.

None of the supervisors responded to messages Tuesday seeking comment on Voice of OC’s discovery that drug paraphernalia possession is the county’s most prosecuted crime.

Valerie Amezcua, who worked for 30 years as an OC probation officer, said there’s a major shortage of treatment beds for people caught with drugs and want treatment.

And many of the drug programs that do exist require people to be sober for a week or two before entering – a major obstacle for people with serious addictions, she said.

“Those that do really want to get out of that addiction and that in and out of the justice system, we should be able to help them,” Amezcua said in an interview with Voice of OC.

“It’s really about where the Board of Supervisors allocates the money. Because we have some great probation officers that really want to help their clients, in my 30-year experience. But we don’t have enough beds,” she added.

“So are we really trying to help a person who has a drug addiction? Or are we speaking out of both sides of our mouth” Amezcua said.

“It has to be balanced. So yes there has to be an enforcement piece, but there also has to be a residential piece…They’re carrying drug paraphernalia because they have a drug problem.”

Juan Viramontes, who leads OC’s largest law enforcement officers’ union, didn’t respond to a request for comment on paraphernalia possession being the most-prosecuted criminal charge in Orange County.

Instead, his spokeswoman referred comment to the DA’s office, adding that the drug paraphernalia prosecution level “coincides with recent reports on the increase in substance abuse in Orange County, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.”

In the four years before the pandemic, paraphernalia charges were the second-most prosecuted crime in OC, after DUIs, according to the court data.

The union, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, is the largest campaign spender on the elections of county supervisors, who decide how to balance taxpayer spending between drug treatment, jails, mental health and prosecutions.

Goldstein, the former police lieutenant, said the cycle of arrests for low level drug charges destroys lives.

“I spent 21 years as a police officer. My priorities have always been aligned with protecting the health and safety of my community,” she said.

“As I watched my own brother struggle with substance use disorder that also included a low level drug paraphernalia arrest, I came to understand our reliance on baseless, excessive criminal punishment – the War on Drugs – merely fueled his spiral towards his death from an overdose,” she added.

“By focusing on arrests such as these, we ignore the reality that drug use is a health issue and not a criminal problem.”

Orange County defense attorney Jeffrey Steering was blunt about what he thinks of law enforcement spending resources prosecuting thousands of people for having meth pipes and other drug use devices.

“[It’s] stupid,” Steering said.

“Why even bother with it? What’s the point?” he asked.“It’s a nothing crime.”

“I would honestly say that perjury is the most committed crime in Orange County,” including by police and witnesses in trials, and yet it’s almost never prosecuted, he added.

A leading libertarian policy research group says prosecuting low level drug possession – as opposed to treating it – harms a person’s ability to get through their addiction.

“Our view is that drug addiction is primarily a mental health issue and a public health issue. And we don’t typically address public health issues by putting people in cages,” said Geoffrey Lawrence, director of drug policy at the Reason Foundation.

“Usually we try to address the underlying cause. If it’s an infectious disease we try to slow the spread through mitigation measures. But in the case of drug addiction it’s about treating the underlying conditions that get the person into that behavior,” he added.

“And from our perspective, when you put a black mark on someone’s criminal record – for low level possession especially – it limits their ability to then engage in the healthy behaviors later on that could pull them out of the addiction,” such as getting an education, employment and housing, Lawrence said.

The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled in 1962 that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize drug addiction, based on a case that originated in neighboring LA County. The rules are different when it comes to prosecuting people for possessing or using drugs, which courts have upheld as constitutional.

Advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union say the prosecution data reveals the lack of treatment services for people who need help.

“We have people that are cycling in and out of jails because they are unable to get the care they need in the community,” said Daisy Ramirez, a jails policy coordinator at the ACLU of Southern California.

“It really raises the questions of why are we not investing more in community mental health care? Because doing so would prevent people from being cycled in and out of jail.”

Barnes has himself called for law enforcement to be only a last resort when it comes to drug addiction.

“It has never been the intention nor the design for law enforcement to be the sole solution to address homelessness, drug addiction, or the mentally ill,” the sheriff told a presidential commission last year.

“The intervention strategies and services necessary to address these issues have become virtually non-existent in recent years, or at least until a few years ago. The resultant gap in social service strategies has had a trickling effect, with these social failures eventually landing on the shoulders of law enforcement to address,” he added.

“Law enforcement should not be the strategy or the first face of government these individuals encounter or rely upon for help; law enforcement should be the last form of government these people encounter, and only when the intervention efforts have failed resulting in a criminal violation of law.”

Barnes plans to hold his monthly news conference Wednesday, however reporters or the public can’t call in to ask questions. 

It’s an approach that stands in contrast to the county’s coronavirus press conferences over the last year, where reporters could call in to ask questions of officials live.

The sheriff’s spokeswoman didn’t have an answer Tuesday for why there’s no call-in option to ask questions.

Instead, Barnes’ office asked reporters to email their questions in by the evening before the news conference, which in the past have been read aloud during news conferences by Barnes’ spokeswoman.

Here are some questions Voice of OC has for Sheriff Barnes:

  1. Do you believe low-level drug cases, like possession for personal use and being under-the-influence (not while driving), should be handled differently? Or do you support the status quo? Should more treatment options be made available? If so, how would that be paid for?
  2. You’ve called for changes in how mental health crises are dealt with. What specific changes do you want to take place, and when will those be implemented?
  3. Why is your policy to destroy internal investigation files of wrongdoing by your law enforcement officers after just five years? Don’t you want to know which deputies have been found to lie and violate other policies more than 5 years ago? Wouldn’t it be extremely low cost to store the documents, given how inexpensive data storage is now? And are you concerned that the 5-year destruction policy is essentially denying the public information about misconduct that it’s entitled to under the transparency law SB 1421?

What questions do you have for Sheriff Barnes? You can let us know in the Facebook comments or by emailing our reporter at ngerda@voiceofoc.org

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

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