Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) officials destroyed more than two years' worth of key documents after being put on notice that Deputy Scott Montoya--a Battle of Baghdad Marine combat hero who returned to the department and faced multiple alleged instances of discrimination--planned a lawsuit for being illegally fired.
That's the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal, who wasn't impressed by OCSD's numerous excuses for its conduct. He issued a $8,000 sanction and declared he will tell jurors in Montoya's upcoming trial they can assume the destroyed records were favorable to the deputy.
That official slam of OCSD tactics points at the administration of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's executive whom OC supervisors hired to restore integrity to the department after the U.S. Department of Justice won a 2009 corruption case against her predecessor, Mike Carona.
The ruling wasn't a complete victory for John S. Kyle, Montoya's San Diego-based attorney, who will get the $8,000 sanction award and wanted OCSD also punished by blocking the department's lawyers from introducing related, self-serving records officials decided to preserve for the department's defense.
Bernal, who declined to rule that OCSD officials purposely cheated, didn't accept Kyle's invitation to grant severe sanctions, but he did issue a stinging rebuke to the law-enforcement agency.
"The [destroyed records] could have revealed inconsistencies in the investigators' testimony or exposed biases in their motives [for building a case to fire Montoya], which would have benefited the plaintiff," the judge declared.
Bernal advised the parties he will read the following instruction at the upcoming trial: "OCSD has failed to prevent the destruction of relevant evidence for Montoya's use in this litigation after it had a duty to do so. Whether this finding is important to you in reaching a verdict in this case is for you to decide."
The department has created a records-management system that protects officials from charges they purposely destroy documents because records are automatically deleted after two years.
Bernal determined that OCSD management waited 27 months to place key evidence in a "litigation hold" that blocks destruction and, when Kyle discovered records were missing, tried to blame events on an incompetent computer technician.
Court records also show that sheriff's officials repeatedly gave inaccurate declarations to Kyle about the thoroughness of their required compliance with discovery requests.
OCSD fired Montoya, winner of the Navy Cross for his life-saving heroics during the Iraq War, in 2010 after accusing him of incompetence, rule violations and repeatedly using his post to hunt for sex while on duty.
Montoya claims that OCSD officials and fellow deputies harassed him out of jealousy of his undeniable Marine accomplishments and plotted to fire him from his dream job.
Fellow deputies worked hard to collect embarrassing information on Montoya. They placed surveillance cameras around his home and put GPS devices on his vehicles. They even bizarrely interviewed a girlfriend in-depth about the size of their colleague's genitals, sexual stamina and bedroom habits.
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The trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 29.