O.C. sheriff’s sergeant may have perjured himself in court, assistant public defender says

Orange County sheriff's deputies in riot gear in 2017.
(Spencer Grant )

An Orange County sheriff’s sergeant may have perjured himself in court when speaking about his role in two high-profile scandals, according to a recent legal filing from Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.

Sanders alleges that Sgt. Jonathan Larson also lied about honoring the Miranda rights of a defendant while testifying during a preliminary hearing in mid-December. Shortly after the hearing, the former investigator was promoted to sergeant, the filing says.

Larson allegedly played roles in two of the biggest scandals to rock the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in recent years — the evidence mishandling and snitch scandals.

Sanders has been revealing details about the evidence mishandling issue in court filings for more than a year and is seeking further information on Larson’s alleged misdeeds for the case of Timothy West, who is accused of possessing drugs for sale. Larson is the key witness in West’s case, and Sanders is seeking to show Larson’s lack of credibility.

“This is absolutely not a believable person in this case, and the government is still in possession of more evidence that would show that,” Sanders said about Larson over the phone on Tuesday.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun declined to comment on the court filing on Tuesday due to not having reviewed the document.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has been uncovering information about the evidence mishandling scandal.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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 legal documents. Department policy requires evidence to be booked at the end of a shift.

Orange County District Atty. Todd Spitzer held that the Sheriff’s Department hid the audits from him. In response, the district attorney’s office conducted a third review of the evidence mishandling, which was released in a report last year.

The district attorney’s audit was a joint effort with sheriff’s department and district attorney’s investigators combing through 22,289 cases. Spitzer ended up dropping or reducing charges in 67 cases due to mishandled evidence.

According to the Sheriff’s Department’s audits, Larson booked evidence five or more days late in at least 18 separate investigations. In 10 of those instances, Larson falsely stated that he had booked evidence when he had not, Sanders’ filing says. On one occasion in 2016, Larson waited 98 days before booking a knife into evidence.

During a preliminary hearing on the West case last month, Larson did not admit that his late booking of evidence violated Sheriff’s Department policy. According to Sanders’ filing, Larson said there was no policy at the time stating that evidence needed to be booked at the end of a shift. However, the department has maintained that it had a policy requiring just that.

“It is incredibly unlikely for a member of the OCSD quickly rising through the department despite his own misconduct during the informant and evidence booking scandals — and with a pending application to the position of sergeant — would take the witness stand unaware that the above-referenced policy was in effect and he violated it numerous times,” the court filing says. “He certainly would have anticipated questions about whether it was a violation of policy when he repeatedly stashed evidence in his desk versus properly booking it. Yet, here he was insisting that this was conduct not prohibited by policy ... Sgt. Larson committed perjury when he provided this testimony ...”

Orange County Sheriff's Department Headquarters and jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters and jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Sanders also said in his filing that Larson was a key player in the Orange County snitch scandal, where sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors were found to have targeted high-profile defendants with jailhouse informants to obtain confessions and incriminating information, a violation of their constitutional rights to have an attorney with them.

Sanders uncovered the snitch scandal during the trial of Scott Dekraai, who was responsible for the county’s worst mass shooting, killing eight people inside of a Seal Beach salon in 2011. An Orange County judge ended up removing former Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas’ office from the case following the uncovering of the illegal informants.

During his testimony in West’s case last month, Larson admitted that he knew that informants were placed in certain locations in the jails to obtain statements from inmates, the filing says. However, he said that he believed that they were “placed in those areas to gather jail intelligence as far as ongoing prison politics.” Larson said his fellow deputies hid their illegal efforts to have informants question defendants about their crimes, and he only learned the truth due to the scandal, the filing says.

Sanders believes this is perjury and Larson fully understood how confidential informants were being used in county jails. Sanders said in his filing that evidence will likely be found in documents that he is requesting from the Special Handling Log, which was used by deputies during Rackauckas’ tenure to record their interactions with jailhouse informants.

“It is not credible that the supposed true wrongdoers either wanted to protect Sgt. Larson from liability or were concerned that Sgt. Larson would reveal their serious misconduct, particularly at a time when all of them worked together in managing an informant program that was being kept secret from defendants,” the court filing says.

Sanders questioned Larson’s commitment to upholding constitutional rights in his filing, claiming that “it hardly seems believable that Sgt. Larson has ever been concerned about crossing a line in terms of violating constitutional rights.”

With regards to the West case, a recorded interrogation revealed that Larson continued to question West after he said he did not want to speak and stated his right to an attorney, the filing says. Then in a police report, Larson omitted that West wanted an attorney and declined to speak.

Despite that discrepancy, Larson said in court that his report was accurate.

The next court hearing is slated for Feb. 1.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.