A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy has been shown to have faked evidence and this was kept secret from the public and suspects in his cases for years.
In 2003, deputy Jose Ovalle was working his shift at a county jail. While on shift, a fight broke out between gang members at the jail, resulting in one person getting stabbed multiple times. Deputy Ovalle was responsible for collecting the evidence in this assault case and, when he realized he could not find the bloody shirt from one of the suspects, he took a clean shirt, spilled taco sauce on it to look like blood, and photographed it for evidence. Ultimately someone observed him doing this, reported it to the supervisor, and deputy Ovalle was handed a 30-day suspension, only having to serve 10 days of that.
Ovalle’s past has been kept a secret from prosecutors, judges and, jurors and defendants for the past several years, even though he was a witness, or even the arresting officer, in many of these cases. Deputy Ovalle took the witness stand in 31 cases before the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office found out about his prior misconduct. This created problems since the DA’s office then had to go back to all of the cases deputy Ovalle was involved in and make “sweetheart” deals or drop criminal charges altogether.
This story, sadly, is not uncommon. Police misconduct is routinely kept hidden by California’s police privacy laws. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court requires prosecutors to inform criminal defendants, and their lawyers, about an officer’s wrongdoing, the state’s laws prevent the prosecution from directly accessing the personnel files of officers. Thus, California places the burden on defendants and their attorneys to prove to a judge that an officer’s record is relevant. In other words, the burden is on us, the defense, to prove that a police officer’s record needs to be looked into. It is not something that is disclosed to us automatically, or even after we conduct a hearing.
Additionally, there is a secret list of Sheriff “problem” deputies that have been involved in misconduct that is kept by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The new Sheriff, Jim McDonnell, wanted to disclose this list (containing approximately 300 deputies) to prosecutors, but the police union sued in court to stop this. The California state Supreme Court will be deciding soon whether the Sheriff’s Department, and other law enforcement agencies, can tell prosecutors if a police witness has a record of serious discipline.
Some people somewhat jokingly ask me, “how do you sleep at night?”, referring to my work defending people charged with committing crimes, sometimes very serious ones. Well, this article summarizes my usual answer to them. A criminal defense attorney’s number 1 job is to zealously advocate on behalf of their client to the best of their ability. This means leaving no stone unturned, fighting for their client as if it is themselves and making sure the government is doing their job correctly and playing by the rules.
When it comes to getting facts straight, the one thing attorney Ross Erlich does with each of his clients is to sit down and go over the police report and arrest narrative to make sure what the officer is saying is correct and/or totally accurate. Oftentimes there are small discrepancies which we need to address with the prosecutor. Other times there is a need to file a motion with the court informing the judge we believe there may be some misconduct on behalf of the officer(s) involved and request disclosure of any misconduct on the officer’s personnel record.
If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is essential that you hire an attorney who will do these things on your behalf. If you read more about the story above, you’ll find that hundreds of defendants whose case started with Deputy Ovalle plead guilty and many might not have even thought to ask about his misconduct. Contact attorney Ross Erlich today for a free consultation and to find out what other tools we have at our disposal to ensure your case is handled correctly.