MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Orange County, Calif. An internal audit showing widespread mishandling of evidence in the sheriff's department has now become a very public scandal pitting different branches of law enforcement against one another. And as NPR's Vanessa Romo reports, the mishandled evidence may affect cases that have already been tried.
VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Three weeks ago, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders first learned that the vast majority of sheriff's deputies had been violating the department's evidence intake rules for years. That immediately raised red flags.
SCOTT SANDERS: It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.
ROMO: Sanders says he learned of a damning internal audit that showed systematic problems with the handling of evidence from a source. Deputies are required to turn in evidence at the end of their shift. But the internal investigation, which looked at almost 99,000 records from 2016 to 2018, found that nearly a third of property evidence was submitted after the department's mandated deadline. On average, deputies delayed booking evidence, including seized drugs, cash, photos and videos, for three and a half days. More than 1 in 4 deputies held onto evidence for a month or longer.
SANDERS: They know it's an enormous problem. And their answer to it is to keep it to themselves.
ROMO: Then the department conducted a second investigation. The results were just as disturbing. In 13% of the cases, deputies never submitted any evidence at all, even when they said they had.
SANDERS: When law enforcement nixes evidence in the back of their police car, when they leave it in their home, when they don't turn it in, that is all evidence that should be in the hands of defendants so that they can have their trials.
ROMO: The findings raise chain of custody concerns and could force a reexamination of cases that have already been decided - possibly even reverse some convictions. Based on their own numbers, Sanders estimates 9,000 pieces of evidence could be tainted or missing.
DON BARNES: That is, completely embellished and inaccurate.
ROMO: That's Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. He says he wasn't legally required to launch the department-wide investigation. He did it as an ethical obligation. And after the alarming results...
BARNES: We did not call the DA, nor would I be obligated to call the DA and say, this is what we found.
ROMO: Eventually, though, Barnes says 15 deputies were referred to the district attorney's office for criminal investigation, which the DA declined to prosecute. Four deputies were fired, seven were disciplined and four cases are pending. Now, the sheriff insists...
BARNES: There have been no cases we've found to have been impacted by any prosecution. In the vast majority of those cases, evidence has, in fact, been found and was in the possession of the sheriff's department.
ROMO: But District Attorney Todd Spitzer says there's no way to know if that's actually true. His office still hasn't seen the audits. When the DA's office got the cases from the sheriff's department involving the deputies, Spitzer says he had no idea it involved nearly a hundred thousand cases.
TODD SPITZER: There was no indication in any way whatsoever that this was a department-wide audit.
ROMO: The disclosures could throw the DA's office into chaos. Still, Spitzer says...
SPITZER: My one and only focus is to determine with certainty how many cases my office may have prosecuted where the evidence was never booked, or it was booked in such a fashion that it calls into question the sanctity of that evidence.
ROMO: Spitzer's might not be the only office that will want to re-examine cases over mishandled evidence. Defense attorneys, judges and the public are also demanding answers.
Vanessa Romo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.