Watchdog Votes to Sue LA Sheriff for Defying Subpoena Over Jail Conditions

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Villanueva for Sheriff campaign photo)

LOS ANGELES — A civilian commission tasked with oversight of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department voted unanimously Thursday to pursue legal action against Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a day after he defied a subpoena to testify on measures to protect incarcerated people against Covid-19 infection in county jails. 

Concern about coronavirus infections in LA County jails has swelled as more than 700 incarcerated people have tested positive for the virus since an outbreak began spreading throughout the county.

Of the more than 11,890 people in county jails, 262 currently have the virus and more than 5,000 are in quarantine, according to the Sheriff Department’s website. 

In early May when the department began testing, 170 incarcerated people tested positive for the virus and at least 3,700 were in quarantine.

No inmates have died after contracting the disease. 

The LA County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission held several hearings in recent months regarding the outbreak and requested that Villanueva attend meetings or send department staff to provide updates. 

After Villanueva rejected at least three requests to attend meetings, the group voted unanimously on May 7 to subpoena the sheriff to submit testimony on the growing number of Covid-19 cases in county jails and on measures to protect inmates.

The oversight group has subpoena powers provided under Measure R, a ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by county voters in March. 

Villanueva escalated his long-running feud with the oversight body Wednesday when he said he would not attend the commission hearing and that the group lacks legal authority to issue subpoenas. 

“The subpoena, Measure R, the ordinance [approving subpoena powers] enacted by the Board of Supervisors, all these things were generated without oversight, without any third-party legal analysis of its constitutionality,” Villanueva said in a video conference streamed on a department social media account. “That still remains in doubt, and until that issue is resolved I will not be adhering to any subpoena issued by either entity, be it the inspector general or the Oversight Commission.”

Villanueva, who was elected in 2018 on a platform of transparency and reform, said residents can find information on health conditions in the jails on the department website.

“If the transparency is being provided and the information is provided, what exactly is the purpose of the subpoena?” Villanueva said in the video. “If they’re engaged in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like on face value, they are sadly mistaken.”

The May 7 vote was the first time the oversight body, which is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, used its newly granted subpoena authority.

In Thursday’s videoconference hearing, commission chair Patricia Giggans said she believes Villanueva is in violation of the subpoena. 

“It certainly doesn’t feel good to us that he doesn’t want to participate in our meetings,” Giggans said. “We regret we have to have this public confrontation with the sheriff, especially during a pandemic when county officials and county workers are putting in extra to do the best they possibly can.”

The 9-member board voted unanimously Thursday to seek legal action in LA County Superior Court compelling Villanueva to comply with the subpoena.

A spokesperson for Villanueva issued a comment on behalf of the sheriff late Thursday.

“The subpoena was issued to me in my official capacity as sheriff, and as such does not call for my personal appearance. As is standard practice, I sent the person most knowledgeable in my place. Measure R contains no enforcement and/or objection mechanism. All of the materials which they may legally seek are already available on LASD.org — Transparency Promise.”

Mariela Alburges of the Reform LA Jails coalition said in public comment the oversight body should also subpoena internal Sheriff’s Department documents that demonstrate the strategy behind the response to the virus outbreak in jails.

“I continue to be concerned about the priorities of the sheriff,” Alburges said. “Especially if they prohibit the Civilian Oversight Commission’s duty of providing oversight.”

Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase — who oversees custody in LA County jails — told commissioners Thursday more than 5,100 people have been released under department measures to stem the surge of Covid-19 cases in the jails.

The reduction amounts to a 32% drop in population since February, when the number of people incarcerated in LA County — which has the largest jail system in the nation — stood at more than 17,000, according to Chase. 

Only one inmate has required the use of a ventilator after contracting the virus, Chase said, adding the department is working to install rapid Covid-19 testing machines in county jails. 

Chase said it is difficult to implement social distancing and sanitation guidelines in crowded jail settings. 

“It can be challenging on a day-to-day basis absent a pandemic,” Chase said. “We’re working to limit movement and create space in dorms. But it’s difficult because of the way they’re designed.”

The department is testing all people who are booked into county jails, according to Chase. 

Information presented by Chase is not available on the Sheriff Department’s website, LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman said in the hearing, adding it further cements the importance of having a department representative at commission meetings.

In reference to Villanueva’s absence, Huntsman said “government by press conference” fails to comply with the county’s transparency requirements.

Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the oversight group and other county officials over budgetary issues and over the sheriff’s decision to rehire officers who were previously fired for misconduct.

As of press time Thursday, LA County has nearly 40,900 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and at least 1,979 residents have died after contracting the disease.

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