A grand jury report issued Monday downplays the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s evidence booking scandal and recommends more independent audits to ensure evidence is being booked according to reforms implemented since the Public Defender’s Office uncovered the issue in November 2019.
The grand jury, which has come under fire for incomplete and at times erroneous reports in recent years, including one two weeks ago on the county’s pandemic response, incorrectly stated the timeline of the scandal, which surfaced in the drug possession case of Raymond Lopez Varelas. He was represented by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, the attorney who uncovered the jail informant scandal in the case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
Sanders has continued to wage a legal battle with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office on the issue, arguing prosecutors are not properly turning over evidence involving sheriff’s deputies implicated for booking evidence improperly.
The report also comes as jurors are being selected in a murder trial affected by the booking scandal. Because of it, gang charges were dismissed against Augustine Velazquez, who is accused of killing a man in an attack that was allegedly planned by co-defendants who were in prison at the time, including reputed Orange County Mexican Mafia chief Johnny Martinez.
The grand jury report says that sheriff’s officials were made aware in January 2018 of the problem that deputies were failing to book evidence in a timely manner and “took immediate action by conducting two audits going back two years to determine the extent of the problem.”
In March 2018, the grand jury reported, the sheriff’s department issued “new policies and procedures” that held “supervisors accountable for reviewing and approving reports and verifying that evidence was booked by the end of each shift.”
Some deputies were “disciplined, and in some cases terminated and referred” to prosecutors for criminal charges, according to the report, which says there was a “joint review” by the Orange County District’s Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s officials to determine if any cases were fouled up because of the late booking of evidence. Some cases were dismissed by prosecutors as a result, the grand jury reported.
“The Orange County Grand Jury acknowledges the positive steps taken by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and its willingness to address the problem,” the report says.
The grand jury report erroneously states that sheriff’s officials “sent 17 cases” regarding delays or failures to book evidence to prosecutors “for further processing.” The Sheriff’s Department actually referred 17 deputies who failed to book evidence in hundreds of cases to prosecutors, who declined to file charges.
Sanders had an informant tip him about the booking problems and it surfaced in his litigation in November 2019, which triggered finger-pointing between sheriff’s officials and prosecutors. The DA’s Office reopened a review of the cases referred to prosecutors, leading to two deputies being charged and accepting plea deals while a third deputy is awaiting trial.
The plea deals drew a rebuke at the time from Sanders, who criticized how the felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.
The grand jury report says that prosecutors “became aware of the extent of evidence booking issues” within the sheriff’s department, but sheriff’s officials have disputed that and said prosecutors were aware of the problem because so many deputies were referred for criminal prosecution.
Sanders in his most recent litigation has argued that prosecutors have failed to add deputies who violated the booking policy to a list that defense attorneys can use to impeach their credibility in court. That was done in the Velazquez case, which prompted a judge to dismiss the gang charges. The attorneys representing the other defendants in the case, including Martinez, are preparing similar motions.
In the Velazquez case, a deputy who was used as a gang expert in the preliminary hearing was found by the judge to have been dishonest about how much training he had gotten on booking evidence. The deputy had violated the booking policy and was questioned about it during the preliminary hearing, but it came out later that he had been placed on administrative leave by the sheriff’s department because of his testimony.
The grand jury cited issues with computer software that can make it difficult for deputies to book evidence.
“The Grand Jury is of the opinion that the current process may not hold up over the long term,” the report said of the sheriff’s computer systems to keep track of evidence.
The grand jury also called for more oversight by lieutenants who are authorized to do spot checks but apparently many are not aware of the directive to do so.
The panel also concluded there is a poor culture of sloppy bookkeeping among younger deputies.
The first audit of reports in June 2018 found that deputies “were busy making arrests and placed a higher value on arrests than booking evidence,” according to the grand jury’s report.
“A lower priority placed on booking evidence led to false statements being made in reports, stating that evidence had been booked, when in fact it had not. There was a clear cultural shift that was in direct conflict with department policy to book all evidence before going off duty. There was no policy in place to provide management oversight, therefore supervisors were not held accountable. In some cases, there was a lax atmosphere which allowed for sloppy work habits and bad attitudes…”
The grand jury report says veteran lieutenants and commanders were “shocked that this could happen.”
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