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Has LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva Acted Unlawfully? A New Report Says, Yes. He Has. A Bunch of Times, Actually

Did Villanueva break the law?

Last updated on February 5, 2022

On Monday, the Office of the Inspector General released a 17-page report on “Unlawful Conduct” of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, most specifically the LA County Sheriff.

The report was requested by the Civilian Oversight Commission or COC.

As its name suggests, the COC is charged with providing “ongoing review, analysis and oversight” of the nation’s largest sheriff’s agency, its practices and procedures, while also building bridges between the department and the public.  To help the COC with these tasks, in January of 2020, the LA County board of supervisors voted to supply subpoena power to the group, via the Office of the Inspector General.

The concept was further ratified by LA voters on March 3, 2020, when the county passed Measure R, a grassroots-led ballot measure that gave teeth to civilian oversight of the LASD by, once again, authorizing the COC to have subpoena power.

Then, in case the matter wasn’t clear enough, in September of this year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 1185, which codifies the state’s counties’ ability to establish oversight bodies for their sheriff’s departments, and grant them subpoena authority — which LA County had (obviously) already done months earlier.

In LA, however, here has been one problem.  Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, doesn’t like oversight, which is part of why the COC asked for the OIG’s new evaluation of unlawful behavior.

More specifically, according to the report,  Sheriff Villanueva believes that, as an elected sheriff, his “power comes from the state Constitution” and therefore cannot be limited by “charter, statute, or ordinance.”

The law, however, does not support the sheriff’s claim, writes the Inspector General, and the conflict has resulted in a “constitutional crisis” for Los Angeles County.

Laws and limits

“I am writing,” Inspector General Max Huntsman states in the report’s opening, “to document examples of unlawful conduct” having to do with the sheriff’s department’s effort to “remove law enforcement reforms and oversight mechanisms” that have been developed in the last few years, specifically limitations imposed since the federal convictions of former sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, for among other things, obstructing justice.

Among the many examples the report cites are three recent rulings by three different judges who took issue with the LA Sheriff’s Department’s view that it need not obey laws that limit its power.

The first of those three rulings pertains to Sheriff Villanueva’s contention that he could rehire former Deputy Karen (Carl) Mandoyan.  Finally, after a string of legal battles, on September 28 of this year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled in a 17-page decision that Villanueva’s attempt to reinstate former deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan was unlawful.  Period.  Full stop.

(You can read the ruling here: Mandoyan ruling 9-28-2020)

In a second ruling, a different court vacated Sheriff Villanueva’s order that forbade the LA County Medical Examiner/Coroner from releasing his autopsy report on the fatal shooting by a deputy.**

The judge who vacated the sheriff’s order wrote that the sheriff’s decision to file this order in secret without consulting the coroner or county council was  “a shock to the conscience.

Contempt and threats

The third ruling is, in some ways, the most interesting.  On November 20, 2020, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Holly Fujie ruled that Villanueva must appear at a hearing early next year on January 21, 2021, to explain why he should not be held in contempt for defying a subpoena requiring him to show up at the COC to talk about the coronavirus problem in the jails, and other topics.  According to Judge Fujie, Villanueva disobeyed the subpoena even though state law and county codes are clear that the oversight commission had the authority to issue it, and the subpoena required his attendance.

In addition to the three rulings, the report  catalogues an impressive number of other examples of the ways that the sheriff has “behaved unlawfully.”

For instance,  the sheriff often fails to release the names of deputies who are involved in shootings, although state law and a California Supreme Court ruling have each stipulated that, absent a specific threat to a deputy or officer, the names must be released, based on the California Public Records Act.

(For the record, the Los Angeles Police Department releases the names of their officers involved in shootings within three to seven days of the shooting, and also posts the information on the LAPD website.)

There’s much, much more on the “unlawful” list, including a section that enumerates the various threats the sheriff has made against county officials, including members of the board of supervisors, the Inspector General, and recently retired County CEO Sachi Hamai.

In the case of Hamai, the sheriff claimed repeatedly and falsely that the then-CEO had refused to pay deputies who were afflicted by COVID 19, an accusation that he repeated on Fox 11 news, and in other forums, finally resulting in Hamai receiving threats on social media.  “Wait till Hamai fears for her life and the life of her family,”  one person wrote.  And there were more after that.

So what can or should be done, if anything, about this list of unlawful, and/or possibly unlawful actions and activities?

Well, both state and local law spell out that sheriff’s departments must cooperate with oversight bodies, like it or not.

Moreover, as the report notes, the public has made it very, very clear that transparency on the part of law enforcement is “a primary concern.” And “the police must follow the law if they are to enforce it.”

The COC will be meeting virtually at 9 a.m. on Thursday, and Inspector General Max Huntsman will be present to report on various issues, this “unlawful” list likely one of them.

There should also be a report on the county’s jails, where 25 percent of the 15,135 people in residence now are under quarantine.

So stay tuned.

More as we know it.

**Note:  We originally wrote that Sheriff Villanueva’s order to forbid the LA County Medical Examiner/Coroner from releasing his autopsy report on the fatal shooting by a deputy — which a judge vacated — pertained to the shooting of Andrés Guardado.  This was incorrect.  The judge’s action addressed an order regarding a different autopsy for a different shooting by a deputy, which occurred subsequent to the killing of Guardado, suggesting that these orders for secrecy might be the sheriff’s new pattern going forward.

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