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Grand jury calls for independent investigation of evidence mishandling in O.C. Sheriff’s Department

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes speaks during a media briefing in Santa Ana.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Grand Jury is pushing for an independent audit of the Sheriff’s Department to ensure that evidence is not continuing to be mishandled by deputies.

The grand jury’s report, released this week, delves into the much-publicized evidence mishandling scandal, where Orange County sheriff’s deputies were found to have booked evidence late or failed to book evidence at all and subsequently lied about it in reports.

“Ultimately, the only way to know if the evidence booking issue has been resolved is through an impartial third-party verification,” the report says. “An independent audit of department reports submitted after March 2018 would confirm that the new policies and procedures are being followed.”

The evidence mishandling scandal was brought to light in 2019.

The Sheriff’s Department had already conducted two audits of its deputies by that time. The department found that between 2016 and 2018, 414 deputies had booked evidence 31 days or more after it was seized and 1,135 deputies had booked evidence six to 10 days after it was seized, according to a court motion. Department policy requires evidence to be booked at the end of a shift.

Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s office then conducted a third audit of the evidence mishandling, which resulted in reduced or dropped charges in 67 cases involving battery, assault and drug possession, among other charges.

Three deputies have been charged with evidence-mishandling crimes.

The grand jury also recommends that the Sheriff’s Department issue a directive within 90 days requiring lieutenants to regularly perform “spot checks” to ensure that evidence is being booked on time.

The grand jury noted that the Sheriff’s Department’s second audit report included a recommendation to conduct monthly spot checks. However, the department never formally adopted the protocol.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Robert Thompson first started acting in his current role on Jan. 18 this year.

“There does not appear to be a policy holding management above the sergeant level accountable for evidence booking and reporting,” the report says.

The grand jury said that much of the evidence mishandling is owed to a lack of leadership and the misplaced priorities of deputies. The report also says that supervisors were not held accountable because the department lacked proper oversight.

“Deputies were busy making arrests and placed a higher value on arrests than booking evidence,” the report says.

The grand jury also recommends that new Sheriff’s Department trainees be given a tour of the department’s Property Evidence Central Booking Facility, which used to be a part of the training of new recruits but isn’t anymore.

“The Grand Jury toured this facility and is of the opinion that the knowledge gained from such a tour would be beneficial to new trainees in emphasizing the importance of proper collection and processing of physical evidence,” the report says.

When reached for comment, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun provided an emailed statement but also said the department will formally respond to the grand jury, which the department has 90 days to do.

“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 D.A. for prosecution,” Braun said in the 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.”

In her response, Braun noted the work of the Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department, district attorney’s office, public defenders office, probation department and Social Services Agency.

“With regard to the recommendation for a third party audit on evidence booked post-March 2018, it is important to note that the review of evidence is part of the work plan for the Office of Independent Review. We welcome OIR’s review of our evidence systems and believe it will confirm the effectiveness of the controls we have put in place.

“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.”

The grand jury report says that district attorney staffers are still concerned about whether the Sheriff’s Department is conducting random audits to ensure that there isn’t any further mishandling of evidence.

A $150,000 reward is being offered by the family of Aiden Leos and Orange County officials for information leading to an arrest and conviction in a deadly shooting on the 55 Freeway last week.

In response to a request for comment, D.A. spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said the district attorney’s office has already asked the Office of Independent Review to review the evidence booking issues.

O.C. Public Defender Martin Schwarz declined to comment for the story.

The grand jury failed to highlight some important aspects of the scandal. The report commends the sheriff’s department’s response to the discovery of the evidence mishandling but does not mention that the department covered up the scandal until O.C. Register reporter Tony Saavedra broke the story in November 2019.

Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who has revealed details about the evidence mishandling scandal in court filings, said in a past interview that the situation is “far from a success story of a rapid response addressing systematic misconduct.”

“We weren’t going to learn any of this, and there certainly was no intent to inform us about the massive scope of false reporting and failures to book evidence,” Sanders said in January. “We obtained the audit through a source and it then became public, more than a year after the massive scope of the problem was understood by the [Sheriff’s Department]. That’s why action was taken. And the real work is just beginning.”

The grand jury report also noted the first 17 deputies referred for criminal prosecution for evidence mishandling and filing false reports. However, it did not mention that the district attorney’s office initially chose to not prosecute any of the 17 deputies. Spitzer later reopened the cases.

At least 16 deputies have been added to the county’s Brady notification list, which is a record that district attorney’s offices are supposed to update with the names of law enforcement personnel who have records of dishonesty, criminality and other issues that could affect their credibility as a witness. Sanders said in a past interview that he believes hundreds more deputies should be added to the Brady list.

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