The Orange County Crime Lab will soon become the sole domain of the Sheriff’s Department following a request from District Atty. Todd Spitzer to end his office’s shared oversight of the forensics lab.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the plan presented by Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes.
Spitzer said that the lab should be independent of the prosecutors’ office so that it can focus only on collecting and analyzing evidence.
“It’s not really giving up power, per se, it is that this should have never been taken in the first place,” he said.
In 2007, the district attorney’s office created a DNA database to store the genetic information of defendants accused of non-violent misdemeanors looking to make plea agreements. Then-Sheriff Mike Carona rejected incorporating the DNA samples into the OC Crime Lab, arguing additional samples would add to a backlog of tests.
The county’s grand jury recommended in 2010 that the crime lab be exclusively controlled by the Sheriff’s Department. Although the Board of Supervisors agreed with this recommendation, it never followed through, Spitzer, a former supervisor, said. Since then, the database has grown to include more than 180,000 individual samples.
In most jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies are responsible for evidence collection and analysis and making sure there is a strong chain of custody, Spitzer said.
“We both agreed when we met right after the election that it is not part of the best practices to have a prosecutorial team oversee the processing or management of evidence,” Barnes said.
During his first meeting on the board, Supervisor Don Wagner complimented Spitzer for taking measures to restore the separation of powers between the D.A.’s office and the Sheriff’s Department.
“What we see, to my mind, is something unusual, and that is a government official actually trying to give up a little bit of power, and it’s being done for the right reasons,” Wagner said.
Supervisor Andrew Do questioned Spitzer on what should happen with the OC Crime Lab’s administration if a future sheriff and district attorney reach impasse.
That decision should ultimately be made by the board, Spitzer said.
“You’re the referees in this county,” he said. “You call balls and strikes, and I think every department head has a responsibility.”