Judge drops contempt hearing after Villanueva agrees to attend oversight meeting

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
A Superior Court judge Thursday canceled a contempt hearing next month that had been scheduled because of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s refusal to comply with a subpoena issued by a civilian oversight panel.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)
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A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Thursday canceled a contempt hearing that had been set for next month over Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s refusal to comply with a subpoena to testify before a civilian oversight panel.

Lawyers representing L.A. County dropped the case against Villanueva after he showed up voluntarily to this month’s Civilian Oversight Commission meeting — for the first time since July of last year — and agreed to appear again next month to discuss his agency’s coronavirus pandemic response in the jails.

The legal battle was a litmus test of the commission’s newly minted power to issue subpoenas as a tool to keep the sheriff in check. The county Board of Supervisors gave the commission the authority in January and voters reaffirmed the commission’s right to do so when they overwhelmingly approved Measure R in March. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the right to subpoena to oversight bodies statewide when he signed Assembly Bill 1185 into law.


Last month, Judge Holly J. Fujie ruled that the commission, a watchdog group appointed by the Board of Supervisors, was well within its power when it directed the county’s inspector general in May to subpoena the sheriff to testify about how the department was responding to the coronavirus inside the nation’s largest jail system.

Villanueva had challenged the legality of the subpoena, describing it at a news conference as a “public shaming endeavor.” His attorney had argued that the subpoena was an abuse of power and that Villanueva had met his obligation to the commission by sending an assistant sheriff to the meeting who was knowledgeable about the issue.

In a statement Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department said the “constitutional issue as to whether the COC has the legal authority to subpoena a duly elected sheriff is still uncertain. In the spirit of cooperation, the sheriff looks forward to working in good faith with members of the COC and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors concerning any future COC subpoena compelling his personal appearance.”

Inspector General Max Huntsman said he was troubled by the sheriff’s claim about the legality of the subpoena.

“Judge Fujie confirmed the authority of the COC to subpoena the sheriff in her first written ruling. This continued anti-transparency rhetoric is deeply disturbing when lives are at stake,” Huntsman said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 3,873 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died, according to the Sheriff’s Department.