If the Orange County, Calif., Board of Supervisors votes to appeal the $2.25 million jury verdict recently assessed against the county in the case of a deputy accused of a vile on-duty rape, then you know what little value supervisors place on the safety of the public. That's a lot of cash, but given the infuriatingly negligent behavior of the sheriff's department, taxpayers are fortunate the verdict wasn't far higher.
According to the lawsuit, former deputy Nicholas Lee Caropino was called to then-22-year-old Alexa Curtin's house after she had an argument with her then-boyfriend. Curtin, the daughter of a former Real Housewives of Orange County cast member, alleges the deputy drove her to her car, made inappropriate comments about her underwear found in the car and ordered her to stay put.
Curtin alleges that "he then returned to the scene, in his vehicle and out of uniform, got into the passenger seat of her car, and raped her," according to the Orange County Register report. The details alleged at the trial were graphic and deeply disturbing, but not fit for a family website.
Some people do awful things, and it's no surprise that some people are accused of doing them under the color of authority. But the county was rightly hit with this verdict because of its policies. Two months earlier, "a then 18-year-old San Juan Capistrano woman made similar accusations against Caropino," the Register reported, "alleging the deputy came to her home following her release from jail… and sexually assaulted her there."
If you had an employee accused of raping a young woman, would you allow that employee to continue to work around other young women? And if you did, you would be deserving of a lawsuit, no?
The department allowed Caropino to continue working on patrol duty. The sheriff's department didn't conduct an internal affairs investigation. The departmental policy is to stall any investigation while a criminal investigation is underway. It's rare for district attorneys to press charges against officers and the county's scandal-plagued DA Tony Rackauckas declined to press charges. In the meantime, the alleged rape of Curtin took place.
The judge informed jurors in the civil trial to assume the rape took place and look at whether the Orange County Sheriff's Department was at least partially responsible for it, given that "Caropino invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he was asked about the incident," according to the Register. The county fought the matter, hiring a private attorney who specializes in defending accused cops to handle the case.
Even Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a DA candidate closely allied with police, expressed disgust. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens "just cost the taxpayers of Orange County $2.25 million because she allowed a deputy sheriff to continue to work patrol while he was under criminal investigation for sexual misconduct," he wrote on Facebook. "I am sickened to see the gross deterioration of the sheriff's department."
Another article in the Register interviewed law-enforcement officials from other Southern California departments, who argued that Caropino "might have been taken off patrol duty when he was first accused of rape" in their departments. In my experience covering these issues, however, police agencies typically put the rights and concerns of the officers above those of the public.
The union-dominated system—ranging from the Peace Officers Bill of Rights to the state Supreme Court's Copley decision mandating secrecy of administrative allegations against officers—is about protecting the employee. In yet another example, police unions have successfully gone to court to stop the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department from turning over to the district attorney the names of around 300 deputies accused of "moral turpitude."
A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision and some ensuing case law mandates that DAs provide the defense in criminal cases with information that could be beneficial to the defendant. That includes information from "founded administrative investigations" about officers accused of immoral conduct, accepting bribes or gifts, police brutality and other serious misbehavior. The idea is that the defense needs to know if a police witness is credible.
In addition to these official legal protections, I've found that officers accused of bad behavior are protected (and their defenses funded) by unions. They also are protected by a culture among police and prosecutors that is, at best, lackadaisical about accusations against fellow members of the Brotherhood. Usually, the only recourse for alleged victims is the civil justice system. That's better than nothing, but the public gets to pay again.
After this verdict and surrounding bad publicity, the sheriff's department has said that it is considering a change in policy. Will wonders never cease? But don't worry, the Register reports that the Orange County spokeswoman "said the county didn't condone 'the alleged conduct of former deputy Caropino.'" Well, that should make you feel much better next time a deputy pulls over your daughter on a quiet country road.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.