It's A Fun New Computer Game! It's A Furniture Polish! No, It's Our Craptastic 'Justice' System!
We all know police officers can do no wrong. Their union representatives frequently tell us this at scary high volumes. Occasionally, though, it turns out an officer has not behaved entirely on the up and up. The Los Angeles Times this week detailed the history of a deputy who planted evidence like the sleazy guest star cop in a "Law & Order" rerun:
The two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies said they saw [Gerald Simmons] toss a plastic baggie of rock cocaine to the ground.
Their testimony would become the backbone of the 2009 criminal case against Simmons.
After a six-day trial, the verdict was swift. Guilty.
But jurors made their decision without knowing a crucial detail.
Jose Ovalle, one of the deputies who also booked the evidence, had been suspended five years earlier for pouring taco sauce on a shirt to mimic blood in a criminal case. He nearly lost his job.
Ovalle should've lost his job for trying to fake evidence in the dumbest way possible. Blood is not known for its distinctive odor of cumin. He might as well have used ketchup.
To be fair, it's not as if Ovalle corrupted evidence in every case he handled. I'm sure some days he'd never made it over to Chipotle. However, jurors put a lot of stock in the police's credibility, and Ovalle had none. Justice eventually prevailed and prosecutors made some generous plea deals and dropped charges. Everyone's happy-ish, but before we cut to the Executive Producer: Dick Wolf closing credits, we should point out that there are probably other cops like Ovalle out there. It's just really hard to find out because California's police privacy laws routinely hide officer misconduct like Easter eggs you'll never find (no, they're not under the sofa, you're not even trying) and that will eventually send you to prison for life.
The U.S. Supreme Court requires prosecutors to inform criminal defendants about an officer's wrongdoing — but the state's laws are so strict that prosecutors cannot directly access the personnel files of their own police witnesses. Instead, California puts the burden on defendants to prove to a judge that an officer's record is relevant.
Times reporters reviewed documents from hundreds of criminal cases in which the district attorney's office identified Ovalle as a potential witness after he was caught faking the bloody evidence in 2003.
Few defendants tried to obtain information about Ovalle's past. A handful of those who did weren't given information about the deputy's discipline. Judges never gave them a public explanation for why it wouldn't have been relevant.
By the time the district attorney's office learned about Ovalle's misconduct, he had been a potential witness against 312 defendants. More than 230 were convicted.
Yep, California prosecutors are under no obligation to ensure that their police witnesses aren't dirtbags. Sure, the system's corrupt, but knowing's half the battle. How can tomorrow's defendant protect himself against the police corruption of yesterday (and today, and, well, throw in tomorrow, too, while we're at it)?
The L.A. Times demonstrated just how futile it all is with a handy visual aid that plays like a cross between a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book and the classic Oregon Trail computer game. Let's give it a go. Just try not to get cholera. (And click that link to play at home!)
This is why Kamala Harris and other senators are advocating for reforming the bail system: Poor people end up doing actual, real jail time before they've even had a trial. They also wind up pleading guilty under duress, which has permanent ramifications that can limit their future employment options.
Hey, we're innocent. We're pleading 100% not guilty. Now what happens? Well, we filed a Pitchess motion, which should get us a peek at Officer Smith's personnel file. We're told the "odds are good." We extend our stay at the prison Airbnb for another month, but we still believe in justice so much we sleep on an American flag bedspread we use to clean up the blood from our morning prison beatings, not that we could ever imagine such a thing happening in an American prison ...
Eventually, we get a list of names and absolutely no help from the state in tracking them down. We hire a P.I. with our oodles of no money (not sure how that works but whatevs) to get cracking on the list. Oh, and we just lost our job. Bummer. But justice is nigh! Our P.I. found someone named "Donna" who filed a complaint against Officer Smith.
Womp! Womp! Thin blue line strikes again. Donna sucks, by the way. It's another week or so, but after a few more dead ends, our investigator finds "Mike" on Facebook. Officer Smith once jacked him up real good, as well, and he's willing to testify. Hooray! We finally caught a break here in the land of the free, which does not include us. We might wind up doing more time than convicted rapist Brock Turner and we haven't even seen the inside of a court room.
Hey, we won! No, wait, just what the fuck did we win? Why does Officer Fake Name still have a job and we're applying for SNAP benefits? Why isn't his misconduct public record now? We've also lost our apartment. They repossessed our car. The ex won't let us see our kids, and something happened to us on the inside. We can't talk about it but we're crazy now.
Man, this game sucks, and it's all too real for many Americans who've broken no actual laws. On the upside, the private prison system is flourishing! God bless Mr. Sessions.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."