Crime & Justice

What’s behind the fight over the identities of 300 problem LA sheriff’s deputies

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The names of approximately 300 Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies involved in serious misconduct must be kept confidential and may not be handed over to prosecutors, a state appeals court ruled this week.

It was a setback for Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who has promised to clean up the troubled department following the jailhouse violence scandal that led to the conviction of more than 20 sheriff’s officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca, who was convicted of trying to block an FBI investigators into brutality inside L.A. County jails.

Here's everything you need to know about the fight over the deputies' personnel records.

Why does Sheriff McDonnell want to hand over this list of 300 deputies to the L.A. County District Attorney?

After McDonnell took office in Dec. 2014, he created a panel of commanders to review individual deputy personnel files. The panel determined approximately 300 active deputies had been found by the department to have engaged in misconduct involving "moral turpitude" – conduct that can be used to impeach a deputy’s testimony in a criminal prosecution.

McDonnell decided to send a letter to each deputy stating that he intended to give their names to the DA to fulfill his obligations under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court Brady v. Maryland ruling. That decision requires prosecutors to hand over to a defense attorney any evidence that might raise doubts about the defendant's guilt. That includes any evidence that a police officer or sheriff’s deputy might not be trustworthy. The requirement that prosecutors hand over exculpatory evidence is called the Brady rule and any list of law enforcement officers who might have credibility problems is called a Brady list.

So what does a deputy have to do to make the Brady list?

The L.A. Sheriff’s Department lists 11 types of misconduct that put a deputy on the Brady list.

  1. Immoral conduct
  2. Bribes, rewards, loans, gifts, favors
  3. Misappropriation of property
  4. Tampering with evidence
  5. False statements
  6. Failure to make statements and/or making false statements during departmental internal investigations
  7. Obstructing an investigation/influencing a witness
  8. False information in records
  9. Discriminatory harassment
  10. Unreasonable force
  11. Family violence

Why did the appeals court rule that McDonnell cannot provide a list of Brady deputies to prosecutors?

In rejecting McDonnell’s effort to turn over the list of Brady deputies, the appeals court sided with the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union the represents 7,600 deputies. The union sued to block the release, arguing that it would violate California’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights.

The appeals court agreed, saying the law prohibits the release of any deputy or officer-related information to the public or to any agency, including the district attorney, unless certain procedures are followed.

In California, that means the filing of a "Pitchess" motion. If a defense attorney wants to prove that an officer lied about events regarding a case, he must file a Pitchess motion requesting access to a law enforcement officer’s personnel information. The motion must contain numerous elements, including a show of "good cause," and judges do not always grant them.

If the sheriff could hand over a list of Brady deputies to the DA, then prosecutors would need only reference the list when filing cases. If a deputy who was expected to testify was on the list, the prosecutor would notify the defense attorney. The defense attorney would still need to file a Pitchess motion, but it would streamline the process.

What’s at stake in this fight?

Identifying exculpatory evidence is the most important work of a criminal defense attorney. The most difficult part of that often is figuring out if a police officer or sheriff’s deputy is telling the truth. Having access to the Brady list might help the defense in certain cases. 

For example, there was the 1992 conviction of Franky Carrillo for a murder he didn't commit. In 2011, a judge overturned the conviction after finding sheriff’s deputies had steered a witness into picking Carrillo out of a lineup of suspects. That witness recanted and prompted a reenactment of the shooting that showed the witness could not have seen the shooter well enough to identify him. Carrillo spent 20 years in prison before he was cleared. It’s unclear if a streamlined Brady process would have alerted the defense to past misconduct by the deputies that would have uncovered the deputies' misconduct at trial, but supporters of giving prosecutors the names of all deputies with a history of misconduct argue that Carrillo's lawyers would at least have had a better chance.

What are law enforcement watchdogs saying about all of this?

Dignity and Power Now and The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails issued a statement denouncing the appeals court decision.

"The systemic violence and misconduct committed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have deeply impacted marginalized communities, causing harm and trauma for many families and their loved ones," said Dignity and Power Now founder Patrisse Cullors. "Sheriff Jim McDonnell has a constitutional right to provide relevant information about deputies to the prosecutors' offices."