The O.C. sheriff fired a deputy for tossing evidence. Now he has to be reinstated
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been ordered to reinstate a deputy who was fired for throwing evidence into the trash, among other infractions, according to a confidential arbitration agreement obtained by The Times.
Deputy Randolph Torres was terminated in 2019 after he admitted to discarding a gram of white powder, a methamphetamine pipe, a replica gun and several hypodermic syringes that he had not booked into evidence. He also failed to book a cellphone taken from a suspect in a firearms case and was accused of booking evidence late in 26 other cases.
Torres told sheriff’s investigators at the time that he “panicked and threw the items away because he did not want to get in trouble administratively,” according to the document. His actions occurred amid a sweeping internal audit of evidence booking practices in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“He threw away the items because he did not know how he was going to explain holding on to the methamphetamine,” the document says.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department must review the evidence in more than 22,000 cases after 15 deputies were criminally investigated for failing to properly book information.
The discarded items were found by inmate-workers sorting trash from the Lake Forest sheriff’s station. The cellphone was found in a bag in the trunk of his car; Torres said that he kept it because he wanted to show its contacts to another officer for possible investigatory leads and that he “simply forgot to book it into evidence.”
The department’s manual requires that all property be booked into evidence by the end of each shift, unless otherwise approved by a supervisor.
Despite the findings, arbitrator Catherine Harris ruled Dec. 3 that Torres’ termination was excessive, and she said he must be rehired without back pay. He will lose an estimated $480,000 in salary and benefits for the two years since his firing, the Orange County Register reported. He was first hired as a deputy in 2004.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said Wednesday the agency stands by its decision to terminate Torres and did not agree with Harris’ ruling.
“It was clear the arbitrator agreed with our assessment that the misconduct was extremely serious,” Braun said, “however, she inexplicably ordered reinstatement. While we respect the due process rights of employees, we strongly disagree with the arbitrators award.”
Corey Glave, an attorney for Torres, said that the decision to fire the deputy had been “preordained” by sheriff’s administrators before a thorough investigation was conducted and that he had been used as a scapegoat.
“That’s improper. That’s not due process,” he said.
Mishandled evidence leads Orange County D.A. to drop or reduce charges in dozens of cases involving assault, drug possession and weapon smuggling.
Torres’ case was part of a series of audits into evidence booking practices at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department between 2015 and 2018. A lengthy review of thousands of cases found that deputies had routinely booked evidence late or failed to book evidence at all, despite having written in their reports they had done so.
In the most recent case, felony charges against Deputy Edwin Morales Mora were reduced to misdemeanor charges over the objection of prosecutors.
No criminal charges have been filed against Torres.
He is not the first officer to be reinstated in the wake of the scandal. Deputy Philip Avalos, accused of mishandling evidence in 51 cases, was promoted to sergeant less than a year after the Sheriff’s Department referred his case for criminal prosecution.
The arbitration ruling says Torres’ mishandling of evidence did not affect the prosecution in the cases to which the items were linked. The case involving the drug paraphernalia pertained to a stolen vehicle.
Edwin Morales Mora is the third former deputy to plead guilty after audit revealed evidence booking issues in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Harris leaned on that outcome in her decision, noting that other employees accused of similar misconduct had not faced termination. Among a group of five deputies fired for missing evidence, Torres was the “only one whose missing evidence did not negatively impact a criminal prosecution,” she wrote.
Yet the Sheriff’s Department’s position, also outlined in the document, said claims that he was treated unfairly were without merit.
“The fact that [Torres] falsified multiple police reports and then threw evidence into the trash to protect himself distinguishes this case from other cases,” the department said.
In her decision, Harris also described Torres’ track record of commendations, as well as his “truthfulness and cooperation” during the investigation.
“Based on the totality of the evidence, one bad decision by a deputy who was afraid of ‘getting in trouble’ should not define the 14-year career of a deputy who has repeatedly shown that he is capable of contributing to the success of the department,” she wrote.
In their 2019 dismissal notice, sheriff’s officials wrote that Torres could no longer be trusted and presented a legal risk, and that he had established a pattern of negligence and dishonesty.
Glave said he could not comment on the contents of that notice, but, like Harris, he said Torres was “completely honest and forthright with what he did and didn’t do, and he accepted responsibility for his actions.”
“That’s what we expect of officers and deputies, so can the community trust him? Absolutely,” he said.
When asked how the department can assure the public of his trustworthiness moving forward, Braun said Torres’ transition period will “include review of all department policies and emphasis on the importance of evidence booking procedures.”
She said his exact role upon reinstatement has yet to be determined.
Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.
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