A sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles was nearly fired for faking evidence in 2003. He's been a witness or potential witness in hundreds of criminal cases since then. In most cases the defendants were not aware of his background and thus never challenged him.
California's legally mandated deep secrecy about police misconduct is in the spotlight again, thanks to a Los Angeles Times investigation about a Los Angeles Sheriff's Department deputy named Jose Ovalle. In 2003, Ovalle was tasked with collecting and documenting evidence involving a gang fight at a detention center in Castaic where an inmate had been slashed. He couldn't find a bloody shirt that was part of the case, so he fabricated it by pouring taco sauce on a clean shirt, taking a photo of it, and submitting it into evidence.
Ovalle was caught, and the Sheriff's Department initially wanted to fire him. But ultimately they didn't, and he's still working, making $240,000 a year. And the sheriff's department didn't inform prosecutors of Ovalle's infraction, so they initially didn't know about his behavior when they were handling cases where he was a witness. According to the Times, he testified in 31 cases before prosecutors found out what he had done.
Prosecutors are supposed to inform defendants when a police officer's past misconduct could affect his credibility. But that's simply not how things work in California. State law keeps police misconduct records so secretive that even prosecutors cannot directly access them. Defenders have to request that judges to check an officer's record to see if there's anything relevant.
Most of the time, even this doesn't happen. More than 230 people were convicted in cases where Ovalle was a potential witness. Only a handful of defense attorneys attempted to inquire into Ovalle's background. In one case, the Times reports, a man who believed that deputies (including Ovalle) planted evidence to justify a search of his car asked for his history, and the judge rejected the request. He ended up pleading no contest to a misdemeanor firearms offense and was put on probation for three years.
The slow speed of justice in California discourages defendants with little money or time from delving into officers' backgrounds. It's a lengthy process that can take months. Many end up accepting plea deals.
And when defense attorneys do find out about Ovalle's past, it can compromise cases against some pretty sketchy guys. In one case, prosecutors ended up offering a plea deal to a known gang member facing more than a decade in prison after Ovalle's conduct was discovered. The man served eight months in jail instead. Since his release, he's been convicted of 10 additional crimes. In another case, a defendant with a lengthy criminal background had his entire conviction overturned after Ovalle's past came to light. That defendant is now in prison in Nevada for intentionally infecting a girlfriend with HIV.
Given this risk of compromising a case, it shouldn't be a surprise that prosecutors want better information about deputies with histories of misconduct. But law enforcement unions have been fighting every effort to make officers' disciplinary histories more transparent and accessible, even to other government officials. It may take a California Supreme Court ruling to determine whether the sheriff's department can pass the names of deputies with records of misconduct directly to prosecutors. There's also a bill winding its way through the state legislature that would open up police records in cases of official misconduct.