My View: Slapped on the Wrist, Deputies Who Mishandled Evidence Get Misdemeanors and No Time

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, pictured in May, Gettyimages

Two Sheriff’s Deputies Plead Guilty in the Evidence Booking Scandal

Over the last 20 days the nation has focused on the egregious loss of life at the hands of law enforcement.  The triggering event was a use of force against George Floyd and, since then, more than 600 videos have emerged of questionable uses of force against mostly peaceful protesters across the nation—we have in the last week published over 10 accounts chronicling dozens of videos.

But that is the tip of the iceberg as many here reading this well understand.  One of our articles today urges the readers to remember prosecutorial reform as a necessary step.  And here I will argue that, while use of force gets the headlines, the false statements by police, withholding of evidence, and mishandling of evidence is a leading cause for hundreds, thousands and probably far more in wrongful convictions.

This year we have watched as another scandal has engulfed the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, with help now from two different prosecutor offices.

This week we saw two deputies, accused of making multiple false statements in police reports about evidence, charged with a misdemeanor and pleaded guilty.

The prosecutors announced that they will not serve jail time or pay a fine.

According to published reports, Deputy Bryce Simpson made false statements in 74 different police reports about evidence booked.  Deputy Joseph Atkinson also made false statement about booking evidence.

The lawyers reading this understand the severity of these charges.  In order for evidence to be admissible, there has to be a chain of custody.  That is essential so that the accused and their attorneys can be assured of knowing that evidence introduced against them at trial and in charging is real and not simply manufactured by the state.

When law enforcement fails to book or otherwise properly handle evidence, when they leave it in offices and on desks, the defendant has no way to ensure that the evidence used against him is real or if it was simply conjured up by the state in an effort to frame them.

We have heard complaints over the years that officers who use excessive force and officers who kill civilians do not face appropriate consequences for their actions.  They rarely get charged, rarely get convicted, and, if they do, it is for minimal time.

The same thing is happening here.

Under state law in California, it is a felony to knowingly make a false statement in a police report.  It is also now a felony to commit an intentional Brady Violation—and false statements about the handling of evidence would be an attempt to conceal exculpatory evidence, and therefore also a Brady Violation.

But Orange County DA Todd Spitzer, who defeated in 2018 Tony Rackauckas because of the latter’s involvement in a sheriff’s department informant scandal,  let these officers off with a slap on the wrist.

In a statement, the DA said, “The public has an absolute expectation that their law enforcement officers will carry out their duties lawfully.”

He added, “When law enforcement officers break the law, it deprives defendants and victims of their rights, compromises the criminal justice system, and erodes the public trust in ways that it may never be able to recover. The entire system relies on the trust that those sworn to uphold the law are following it themselves.”

But others are saying that the DA is now letting the deputies off with a slap on the wrist and they should have been charged with felonies.

“It just makes a mockery of the justice system,” said Scott Sanders.  Sanders is the Orange County Public Defender who brought forward this latest scandal—and it was his work that exposed the informant scandal as well.

“If a regular citizen walked into the police department and filed dozens of false police reports, they would be on their way to prison. In Orange County, the people who should be held to a higher standard don’t have to serve a single day in custody. They don’t even have to do an hour of community service,” he added.

“[The two deputies] absolutely dishonored their badge and engaged in incredible misconduct in case after case that qualifies for felonies, and they made this backroom deal, so that they would not have to feel a slap on their wrist…For the District Attorney’s office to hold this out as accountability is embarrassing. And to do it in this time period when all eyes are focused on creating a justice system where all officers are held to a higher standard, it’s frankly astonishing what they just did.”

Sanders went on to point out that the charges will come off their record in a year.  But Spitzer responded that the deputies now have criminal records and have lost their jobs.

The reality is that for whatever reason this nation fails to hold law enforcement accountable for their actions.  We throw the book at people over things like property crimes and substance abuse, but when it comes to official abuse of power—which is really what this is—and the stealing of a private citizen’s freedom, we let them off scot-free.

Scott Sanders was angry: “In one year, it’ll come off their record…almost for sure. It’s disgusting. I mean it’s truly disgusting…Here you have report after report with false information. With many many many defendants. And this is your version of justice? It’s shameful.”

We talk about police accountability and focus on use of force, but conduct like this can be as damaging, if not more.  The difference here is that use of force cases have a single victim usually.

In Orange County this deputy filed over 70 false police reports—that is at least 70 people who potentially lost their freedom for perhaps lengthy periods of time due to the dishonesty of one police officer, and the punishment for that is nominal at best.

—David M. Greenwald reporting
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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    We often talk about the importance of the deterrence of crime. It would seem to me, it would be a significant deterrence if a police officer knew that if caught, his penalty would be exactly the same as that of any civilian guilty of the same crime. Does anyone believe that would not be an equitable solution.

  2. John Hobbs

    “Does anyone believe that would not be an equitable solution.”

    Equitable, maybe, but not appropriate. The deputies have a higher obligation (under sworn oath) to uphold the law and should face greater penalties.

    1. David Greenwald

      While I think you’re probably right, it would seem to me that getting it up to par would be a good start. That said, I find it interesting how much we value property over persons.

      1. John Hobbs

        ” it would seem to me that getting it up to par would be a good start.”

        In a barn on a friend’s property I have a 1968 Fiat 850 Spyder in original condition. The clutch is made of craft paper, the wafer thin when new brake pads wear out after one hard stop and the engine leaks about a quart of oil every 100 miles. To manufacture better parts and make it work properly would cost as much as buying a new Corvette. The American police are defective in design. The recruitment requirements of mediocre intelligence and even lower character requirements has made them irredeemable.

  3. Tia Will

    John

    Fair point. Their power over civilians should bind them to a higher standard. However, in keeping with my distaste for incarceration, I believe restitution and community service are called for.

    1. John Hobbs

      So a cop suppresses  evidence that leads to a false conviction and imprisonment for let’s say 20 years. (not an uncommon occurrence as many recent cases illustrate.) How does (s)he make restitution? I am not a fan of incarceration, either, but how would you arrive at an equitable sentence that makes the cop’s victim whole?

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