A defense attorney behind allegations of abuses of a confidential informant program with Orange County’s jails is now alleging systemic problems with the booking of evidence in cases, prompting a sheriff’s spokeswoman to announce Monday that four deputies have been fired and multiple others were disciplined.
The allegations publicly surfaced in the case against Raymond Lopez Varelas, who is charged with possession of methamphetamine and heroin for sale with a sentencing enhancement for gang activity.
Varelas, who has six prior felony convictions, has alleged he rejected an offer by deputies arresting him to become a confidential informant and had the book thrown at him as a result, his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, said.
Sanders represented the worst mass killer in the county’s history — Scott Dekraai — who got the Orange County District Attorney’s Office removed from prosecuting his case due to claims of outrageous governmental misconduct, and ultimately avoided the death penalty as a result. Dekraai, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Sanders has filed what is known as a Pitchess motion, which seeks disciplinary records of law enforcement involved in the arrest of his client.
Sanders predicted the problem could affect thousands of criminal cases.
Sheriff’s officials became aware of the problem of improperly booked evidence in January 2018, department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said. Deputies are required to book evidence by the end of their shift.
Braun said the department “immediately launched audits to determine the scope of the policy violations.”
The auditors looked at February 2016 through February 2018. They went over about 98,000 reports and about 27,000 evidence bookings involving about 1,500 deputies, Braun said.
“The audits determined there were systemic problems with evidence being booked outside policy,” Braun said. “The majority of the evidence that was not booked properly as digital evidence, consisting of items such as photographs, surveillance video, and/or audio recordings.”
Sheriff’s officials “took immediate measures to ensure personnel were educated on the policy and procedure for booking evidence,” Braun said.
Supervisors now have new procedures to double check that evidence and property is properly booked, she said.
Sheriff’s officials referred 15 criminal cases to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, but no charges have been filed, Braun said. Of those 15 deputies, four were fired, seven were disciplined and four are pending internal investigations, Braun said.
“From interviews conducted during the internal investigations, we know that the majority of the time that evidence was booked outside of policy, the evidence was maintained by the deputy until it was booked,” Braun said.
“The department book immediate corrective action and continues to audit and proactively educate personnel regarding the vital importance of booking evidence within policy,” Braun said.
Sanders doubted those assertions, pointing out that he would not have known any of this unless he had a source alerting him to the improper bookings. Sanders also questioned why sheriff’s officials did not immediately alert defense attorneys instead of waiting until their internal investigation was completed.
“Again, it’s the same issue that came out with the informants,” Sanders said. “They put us at an incredible disadvantage waiting two years to disclose it.”
Sanders blamed a mentality of prioritizing convictions over exchanging evidence with defense attorneys.
The sloppy and careless booking of evidence can become a problem if it mingles with evidence from other cases, Sanders said.
“How much sits out there or gets mingled with other cases we don’t know,” Sanders said. “And the problem is there is no chain of custody of evidence that is reliable in probably thousands and thousands of cases. I’ve heard stories from my sources that there are offices filled with evidence that was never booked just sitting together. It’s horrific.”
The sheriff’s audit showed nearly 85% of evidence was booked within five days, just more than 7% was booked in six to 10 days, 4.6% was booked in 11-20 days, 2.02% booked within 21-30 days, and 1.43% booked more than a month later. The average time it took to book evidence was 3.4 days, according to the audit.
According to the audit, it took an average of 3.9 days to book money, 1.1 days to book weapons and ammunition, two days for drugs, 2.4 days for drug paraphernalia, 5.1 days for photos or video, 3 days for weapons other than guns, and 3.7 days for various other items.