Ex-O.C. sheriff's deputies plead guilty in evidence booking scandal

James Queally
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he was pleased with the decision to file charges against deputies.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Two former Orange County sheriff's deputies have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in an evidence booking scandal that could imperil thousands of criminal cases, prosecutors said Monday.

Joseph Anthony Atkinson Jr., 39, and Bryce Richmond Simpson, 31, each pleaded guilty Friday to one count of willful omission to perform their duties, according to a statement issued by the Orange County district attorney's office. Each was sentenced to one year of probation.

The charges stem from a broader scandal after an internal Sheriff's Department audit found that one-third of all evidence taken in by the agency over a two-year span, from February 2016 to February 2018, had not been booked within one day, which is the department's policy. In some instances, evidence was booked months late or never booked at all, attorneys and advocates have said.

Prosecutors reviewed potential criminal charges against at least 17 deputies. Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer had initially declined to charge any deputies but since has reversed course and said he did not initially realize the scope of the alleged misconduct. Fifteen deputies still could face charges, according to the statement.

Some cases proved to be particularly egregious. Earlier this year, a filing submitted by the Orange County public defender's office alleged that one deputy was late to book evidence in at least 51 cases, including one instance in which he waited nine months to deliver a machete to the evidence locker after seizing the blade in a traffic stop. The deputy, Philip Avalos, was later promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Simpson joined the Sheriff's Department in 2012. Atkinson was hired in 2013. Attempts to contact both men Monday were unsuccessful. Both were among five deputies fired as part of an internal investigation into the case.

“The public has an absolute expectation that their law enforcement officers will carry out their duties lawfully,” Spitzer said in a statement. “When law enforcement officers break the law, it deprives defendants and victims of their rights, compromises the criminal justice system, and erodes the public trust in ways that it may never be able to recover. The entire system relies on the trust that those sworn to uphold the law are following it themselves.”

In a statement, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he was pleased with the decision to file charges, noting this was "precisely why the cases were submitted for consideration of criminal charges in the first place.”

Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who has revealed significant details about the scandal in court filings over the last year, called Spitzer's handling of the case an "embarrassment." Attorneys had documented dozens of instances when Simpson and Atkinson either failed to book evidence properly or booked it later, Sanders said.

“If this is their opening salvo, with two of the worst offenders, we’re off to an incredibly bad start," he said. “These two had just an absurd number of reports. ... These were the people that were the easiest.”

Prosecutors are reviewing upward of 22,000 criminal cases that may have been tainted by the evidence scandal "to ensure evidence reported booked by deputies was in fact booked," according to the statement. In any case where evidence is determined to be missing, criminal charges will be dismissed, officials said.

Spitzer said the misdemeanor charges were appropriate given the "totality of the circumstances" of the case.

"These two men now have criminal records, and they are no longer deputy sheriffs," he said.

Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.