A defense attorney who publicized a scandal involving the failure by hundreds of deputies to properly book evidence blasted Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Monday for negotiating light sentences for two deputies who were among the worst offenders.
On Friday, former sheriff’s deputies Joseph Anthony Atkinson Jr., 39, and Bryce Richmond Simpson, 31, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful omission to perform their official duty. The fired deputies, who were charged June 1, were sentenced to a year of informal probation.
“They are widely viewed as the worst offenders in terms of their conduct, so you would expect they would be punished the most severely,” said Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who said Atkinson and Simpson should have been charged with felonies.
Simpson was hired as a sheriff’s deputy in 2012 with Atkinson joining the department in April 2013, according to Spitzer’s office.
The evidence scandal has prompted a dispute between Sheriff Don Barnes and Spitzer, who claimed previously Barnes surprised him with the issue while Barnes pointed out that prosecutors earlier rejected charges against any deputies.
Barnes said he learned of the plea deal on Monday.
“These cases, as well as 13 others, were investigated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and submitted to the district attorney for criminal filing consideration,” Barnes said.
“All of the cases were rejected for prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office, which allowed us to complete our administrative investigation. As a result of our completed internal processes, both deputies were separated from employment, one in August 2019 and one in January 2020.”
Barnes said prosecutors requested the department’s criminal investigation case files back to reconsider charges in November following news reports regarding Sanders’ litigation in a few of his cases.
“I am pleased that after more than two years, and with two separate submissions to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, that the DA filed charges in these cases,” Barnes said.
“It speaks to the integrity of the investigation that was conducted by the Sheriff’s Department nearly three years ago. This is precisely why the cases were submitted for consideration of criminal charges in the first place.”
Said Spitzer: “Our job is to do what is in the best interest of justice, and that includes reviewing the totality of the circumstances. As a result of their actions, these two men now have criminal records and they are no longer deputy sheriffs.”
Spitzer said he “took action” when he learned of the booking scandal.
“I insisted that the initial audit be expanded to include an additional three years of cases and that 22,000 cases be hand searched in order to identify other potential cases where evidence was improperly booked and defendants’ rights had been violated,” Spitzer said.
“I also ordered that charges be dismissed in cases where the relevant evidence was never booked. This review is ongoing, and as additional issues are uncovered, defense attorneys continue to be notified. We will always do justice.”
Sanders said the case represents the double standard between law enforcement and private citizens.
“Officers are supposed to be held to a higher standard because they swear to serve and protect,” Sanders said. “If a regular citizen filed 72 false police reports they would be spending years in prison. Here you don’t even have to clear up trash in the streets.
“It’s an embarrassment to where we are in this county in terms of holding police officers accountable. The problem is this is loud and clear to police officers — do as you wish and there will be no accountability. To claim this is accountability is embarrassing and shameful.”
The former deputies will be able to have the records expunged in a year, Sanders said.
“They’ll never feel this for a moment past the year 2021,” Sanders said.
Sanders doubted the other deputies who came under scrutiny will ever get charged or punished.
“You can’t go any lower than this,” He said. “So what do you do with the deputies who engaged in misconduct but not at this level? What do you give them? An infraction?”
Defense attorney Paul Meyer, who represents the deputies, said, “Both deputies cooperated with the investigation of the 2017 failures to accurately reflect the booking status in reports. The investigation revealed that these errors were not related to any other improper conduct, and that the intention of the deputies was to respond as quickly as possible to multiple emergency calls, causing paperwork backlogs which resulted in the violations.”
Sanders estimated that more than 1,100 deputies have booked evidence against department policy and that more than 400 have booked evidence at least a month late on more than one occasion.
Defense attorneys throughout the county are challenging cases against their clients due to the booking problems.
Spitzer said that earlier this year he reopened criminal investigations of Simpson, Atkinson and 15 other sheriff’s deputies. Sixteen of the deputies have been added to a so-called Brady list, which includes deputies with issues that defense attorneys may use to impeach witnesses in the legal process.
Spitzer said he hired Patrick K. O’Toole as a special prosecutor to review all of the cases and determine if charges should be filed. O’Toole was a U.S. attorney of the Southern District of California and headed the San Diego District Attorney’s Office’s Public Integrity Unit.
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