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Despite a sweeping evidence scandal that unraveled 67 criminal convictions and charges, OC sheriff officials still are not doing basic audits to make sure such problems aren’t still happening, according to a new investigation report by the county grand jury.
The grand jury found the widespread evidence mishandling stemmed largely from a “failure of leadership,” including “no policy in place to provide management oversight.”
“Therefore supervisors were not held accountable,” the grand jury found.
It’s the first in-depth independent investigation of the wide-ranging evidence scandal, which involved evidence being booked weeks late or not at all, and in several cases false statements by deputies about whether they actually booked evidence in criminal cases.
The scandal led to the dropping of charges including assault, battery, fraud, and weapon smuggling into a jail, DA prosecutors announced earlier this year.
This week, the Orange County Grand Jury released its investigation report into the scandal, finding the sheriff has not done audit checks to make sure the problems are not still happening.
“An audit of OCSD department reports submitted from March 2018 forward has not been conducted to confirm that current OCSD policies and procedures regarding evidence booking and reporting are being followed,” the grand jury wrote, using the department’s acronym.
“There is no documentation confirming that OCSD lieutenants perform evidence booking spot audits consistently across all divisions, resulting in limited management accountability and weak internal controls,” they added.
And DA prosecutors continue to “question whether current OCSD policies and procedures related to evidence booking and reporting are being followed,” the grand jury found.
Sheriff Barnes’ spokeswoman declined to respond to these grand jury findings, saying the department will respond formally to the grand jury.
State law gives the department 60 days to officially respond to the grand jury, which in this case would fall in the second half of July.
Barnes’ spokeswoman also declined to answer how many cases involved deputies or investigators making false statements about evidence, and why the department did not review their full set of about 71,000 police reports for evidence problems after a random sample of 450 reports found that 13% of them had evidence problems.
So far, three sheriff’s deputies have been charged with crimes in connection with the evidence booking problems.
Deputies Bryce Simpson and Joseph Atkinson pleaded guilty to crimes for failing to perform their duties. A third deputy, Edwin Mora, was indicted with a felony last summer for allegedly filing a false police report about evidence. He’s pleaded not guilty.
Barnes led the Sheriff’s Department’s day-to-day operations as undersheriff when many of the known false reports and evidence problems took place.
The sheriff declined to be interviewed by Voice of OC about the report’s findings.
The lax approach to evidence booking and false statements was a shift in culture from the past, according to the jurors.
“Lieutenants and commanders who have been with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for several decades were shocked that this could happen,” the grand jury wrote.
“The practice during their tenure as deputies was that you booked evidence right away; this type of behavior would never have been acceptable.”
The only part of the report Barnes’ office commented on was its praise of the department for what jurors considered a prompt examining of the evidence issues starting in early 2018.
The grand jurors did not note in their findings that Sheriff Barnes kept the evidence mishandling scandal secret for nearly two years until the Orange County Register was about to reveal it publicly in November 2019.
“The Grand Jury commended OCSD for taking immediate action once evidence booking issues surfaced, initiating policy changes, and holding employees accountable through both discipline and referral to the DA for prosecution,” sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in a statement.
“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is reviewing the Grand Jury’s recommendations and will implement any that we believe will strengthen our current procedures.”
She noted that an audit of evidence booked after March 2018 is upcoming from Sergio Perez, executive director of the county’s Office of Independent Review (OIR), who reports to the Board of Supervisors.
“We welcome OIR’s review of our evidence systems and believe it will confirm the effectiveness of the controls we have put in place,” Braun said.
“The test of an organization’s strength is how it responds when problems or shortfalls come to light. The Grand Jury Report confirms that the Department took swift action to correct the evidence issue.”
Sheriff’s officials testified to the grand jury last summer that supervisors knowingly allowed deputies to book evidence late in violation of policy – and only deputies were punished, not managers.
A sheriff executive testified a “large number” of deputies booked evidence late in violation of policy and the problem was “department-wide.”
Deputies testified that the emphasis at their stations was on making arrests, not ensuring evidence was booked properly to make sure it stands up in court.
Grand jurors repeatedly questioned whether anyone in management was disciplined, and the answer was no.
Delays in booking evidence can affect criminal cases by prompting questions about whether the material was contaminated and if prosecutors can verify to courts the evidence is the same as what was collected from a crime scene.
Grand jurors underscored the crucial importance of proper evidence handling in their report this week.
“Our system of justice relies upon the proper collection and preservation of physical evidence, as well as the honesty and integrity of those who are sworn to ‘tell the truth,’ ” they wrote.
“Therefore, it is imperative that those responsible for collecting and booking evidence do so in a way that does not compromise the justice system.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.