Every criminal case rests on the evidence. That is why the most recent Orange County Sheriff’s Department scandal is so disturbing. Or as on Orange County Public Defender put it: The implications of this scandal are massive. Orange County law enforcement is no stranger to scandal. In recent years, there have been crime lab scandals, informant scandals, and exculpatory evidence scandals.   And now we learn that the more than a few sheriff deputies were failing to follow protocol regarding evidence booking and much worse. This latest scandal could affect thousands of Orange County criminal cases.

An audit conducted on the Sheriff’s Department revealed that over 70% of the Sheriff Department’s deputies failed to book evidence according to the department’s procedure. In some cases, the evidence was booked days, weeks, or even months late and in some cases, the evidence was never booked at all. Another audit revealed that 47% of Sheriff Deputy reports that supposedly included evidence did not—in other words, the deputies lied on their reports. By some accounts, there are 9,000 missing pieces of evidence.

Incredibly, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has known about this problem for at least two years but kept it under wraps—even apparently hiding it from the District Attorney, although the Orange County Sheriff maintains that the department was not obliged to inform the district attorney. It was brought to light by an assistant Orange County public defender, which prompted an article about the scandal in the Orange County Register. Understandably District Attorney Todd Spitzer is not happy about this, observing that this is part of a larger pattern of “systemic problem or failure” within the Sheriff’s Department. The auditors who discovered this multitude of irregularities euphemistically blamed it on the Sheriff’s Department’s “cultural idleness.” No matter what you call it, this is a big deal.

Now you might think, how can someone be charged and convicted if the evidence is missing? Consider this: over 95% of convictions in Orange County come as the result of a plea bargain. When there is a plea bargain the physical evidence is almost never presented. The Sheriff’s Department maintains that the department has custody of this evidence even if it was not booked according to procedure or mis-booked. But even if the evidence is located, this scandal now raises concerns regarding the chain-of-custody rules and could force challenges to jury trial convictions where the evidence is now in question. This scandal will likely have repercussions including retrying or even overturning of criminal cases and convictions. How evidence is handled implicates a defendant’s constitutional rights and the integrity of the criminal case.

On a more general level, this scandal, and the ones that preceded it, lead to questions regarding the virtue of the Sheriff’s Department and impinge upon the public’s trust in the department. The public may not cry tears for defendants whose constitutional rights have been violated, but if this results in the overturning of criminal convictions, the public will take notice.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has worked in the Orange County criminal justice system for over 25 years. He has seen his fair share of abuses by the Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County prosecutor. When he suspects his client’s constitutional rights are being violated, he doesn’t let the violation pass. If you have been accused of a crime, Attorney Weinberg will forcefully fight for your rights under the law. Contact Mr. Weinberg at 949-474-8008 or at bill@williamweinberg.comto set up an appointment for a free consultation regarding your case.