OC Public Defender Accuses Sheriff’s Department of Protecting Deputy from Charges of Misconduct

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, pictured in May, Gettyimages

By David M. Greenwald

Orange County, CA – Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders last week filed a motion to compel discovery in a case of Brittany Shahbakhti, alleging misconduct by Detective Matthew LeFlore for his involvement in the evidence scandal and allegations that not only did he fail to book evidence properly, but the Sheriff’s Department has been covering for him..

“OCSD leadership would have reasonably expected that, if discovered, this would raise fairness and reliability questions among others investigated,” Sanders said in the motion.

Don Barnes in a statement last week to local media fired back, accusing Sanders of attempting to purposefully mislead the court and public.

“The timelines and assumptions made by the Public Defender’s motion are wrong and serve to purposefully mislead,” Sheriff Don Barnes said in a response published in local media accounts. “We trust that the court and the public will see this as a blatant disregard for facts and focus on the criminal actions by the public defender’s client in court, and not try a case through the media.”

The defendant in the case is facing gun charges.

LeFlore was a key part of an “evidence scandal” discovered following an audit that determined mishandled evidence over a two-year period between February 1, 2016, and February 1, 2018.

LeFlore was found to be among “the most egregious defenders” but was given the assignment as investigator for others accused of delaying the booking of evidence  “even though OCSD knew that Leflore had both booked evidence late on numerous occasions and wrote five reports in which he falsely claimed to have booked evidence at the time he submitted his report when that was not true.”

Sanders alleges that upon completing his assignment, “LeFlore soon showed that he was unaffected by the experience.”

In July 2018, following completion of his evidence investigation assignment, LeFlore collected two full boxes of ammunition, and 11 grams of methamphetamine and narcotics pipes.  These were reportedly located inside a pair of boots he had seized. 

He first claimed to have confiscated the ammunition, then he didn’t recall, then he changed his story again, Sanders charged.

“LeFlore neither booked any of the items, nor created a report describing having taken possession of them,” Sanders writes in the motion. “Approximately two weeks later, he left the pair of boots he seized on the counter of his OCSD substation, with a note that stated “Free.” The methamphetamine and pipes were inside one of the shoes.”

LeFlore initially refused to speak to investigators about his actions. But he later denied knowing the methamphetamine was left in the boots.

Sanders noted that his response to an earlier group text asked whether anyone heard anything about “some boots with drugs in it,” which suggested he was aware of the presence of the narcotics.

He texted,  “I took care of it. LOL (hand over face emoji).”

“LeFlore informed his supervisor that he had collected the ammunition, but shortly thereafter told investigators that he had no memory of the ammunition-before switching his account, once again, telling the investigators he may have discarded the evidence,” Sanders alleged.

LeFlore, according to the motion, became the 16th of 17 members of the agency referred to the DA’s office for potential criminal charges—these were all rejected.

Sanders alleges that “the investigation of LeFlore and the related report that was completed in August 2018, were carefully crafted to conceal critical information from the OCDA and lessen the chances that he would be prosecuted.”

Sanders further alleges the history of LeFlore failing to timely book evidence “was hidden entirely from the internal criminal report.”

However, this, he argues, “was only the beginning of the concealment that inured to LeFLore’s benefit.”

He writes, “The omission from the internal criminal report of other instances of evidence related misconduct by Leflore was clearly designed to control the process and help deliver impunity for a member of the agency who seemingly should have been held to a higher standard, considering he was engaged in this behavior after investigating others for the same class of misconduct.”

Sanders added that this was not “just to protect LeFLore, but to protect the agency’s leadership from being exposed for its decision-making.”

Sanders argues that there was little question “that the unjustifiable use of LeFlore as an evidence audit investigator and the cover-up of his past misconduct in the OCSD’s referral report was never disclosed during the Orange County Grand Jury’s interviews with members of the OCSD.”

Sanders noted that if they were aware of that information, the Grand Jury would not have included as one of its conclusions that the “OCSD has taken steps to change the culture and restore trust and confidence in the system.”

The department disagrees with Sanders’ conclusion that they knew that he had failed to book evidence but assigned him to investigate deputies for doing the same thing.

Moreover, the timing is suspicious.  LeFlore has since been added to their Brady Notification System—a list of problem cops.

Sanders notes that since the original disclosure, “LeFlore has been added to the Brady Notification System, and the sole evidence the OCDA has disclosed relates to the misconduct described (in the Avalos case)..”

Sanders believes that they intentionally waited until “it perceived the coast as being clear” in a previous case involving Sgt. Philip Avalos for evidence handling and reporting issues.

Sanders writes, “Avalos—a deputy in 2016 when he participated in the murder investigation shares center stage in Tanber with Sergeant Victor Valdez in an investigative performance that one might reasonably expected to have been career-ending.”

He explains, “The defense in Tanber alleged that Avalos and Valdez had engaged in an improper and sexualized relationship—well-documented in text messages—with a female informant who suffered from a heroin addiction.”

The department claims that Sanders has his facts wrong, that LeFlore was vetted prior to being assigned the evidence handling case—however they claim “officials only looked at whether he and other deputies had missed booking evidence by 30 days or more.”

Given policy, LeFlore was “tardy by 24 days at the most—so he did not come under the department’s radar when he was assigned to the evidence case.”

Sanders for his part dismisses this as post-hoc justification.

“Now we find out Leflore (was) repeatedly” 23 days late in filing evidence, Sanders told the Vanguard.  “So they say to themselves “how do we justify that?  We can’t say the cutoff is 24 days.  So we we will say it is 30.

“But they wanted to come up with something so badly they didn’t think it out. This means essentially before the scandal broke personnel could be four weeks late and not face punishment because they certainly weren’t going to punish the investigators,” he said.

“The truth,” he said, is “they never saw this exploding and ever getting to this point, so pretty clearly were not worried anyone would figure out LeFlore’s history. Hence, when LeFlore gets referred they hide his prior history. That was certainly intentional.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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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