LOS ANGELES—A federal judge on Monday rejected a plea agreement by former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, saying the maximum sentence of six months included in the deal was too lenient for his “gross abuse of the public’s trust.”
Judge Percy Anderson’s surprise rejection came at the end of what was supposed to be Baca’s sentencing for lying to authorities investigating jail beatings. Under the agreement, which was accepted by prosecutors earlier this year, Baca faced up to six months in prison and was eligible for probation.
Anderson acknowledged that the 74-year-old Baca’s early stage Alzheimer’s diagnosis and some of the good he has done in the community were factors to consider but were heavily outweighed by the harm caused by his conduct.
In the plea agreement, Baca acknowledged ordering deputies to intimidate an FBI agent investigating his department and “do everything but put handcuffs on her.” The investigation uncovered inmate beatings and found that deputies tried to stifle the probe by hiding an inmate who was an FBI informant.
Anderson said Baca’s lies not only derailed the investigation, but “deputies were taught how to cover up abuses committed by fellow deputies, how to look the other way, how to shield the department from embarrassment — all of which led to fostering an us-versus-them mentality and unwritten codes that taught deputies that when an inmate dared attempt to harm a deputy, deputies would respond with enough violence to send that inmate to the hospital.”
To accept a sentencing range of zero to six months in prison would “trivialize” the rule of law and wouldn’t address “the gross abuse of the public’s trust,” Anderson said, adding that it would also fail to restore the public’s confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Before Anderson rejected the plea deal, Baca apologized in open court, saying he failed to be a leader.
“I stand here today humbled and filled with remorse for my mistakes as the sheriff of Los Angeles County,” Baca told the judge, adding that the department and the public had trusted him. “I valued and honored that trust beyond measure. I took that task seriously ... It is my entire life’s work.”’
Baca asked Anderson to allow him to return to the community to “continue to give back” to Los Angeles.
Baca left court immediately after the hearing without speaking to reporters. His attorney Mike Zweiback defiantly told reporters that he can’t accept more than a six-month sentence for Baca, given his client’s Alzheimer’s.
“Then it’s trial,” he said, adding that Baca has explanations about his behavior that haven’t come out. “We’re going to have a fight.”
Zweiback said in his 25 years as an attorney he had never seen such a decision in a case that was so thoroughly argued.
“We were blindsided,” he said. “To have this come out of the blue, for something that started as a very normal type of proceeding, is frustrating and it causes a lot of confusion.”
Baca led the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 15 years. Popular and media-savvy, Baca used his platform as sheriff to travel the world touting progressive policing policies. He consistently dodged questions about any connection to corruption, even as other former underlings pleaded guilty or were convicted.
Baca suddenly announced his retirement in 2014 as his department came under increasing scrutiny. Since then, 21 members of the sheriff’s department have been convicted of federal crimes that involve beating inmates and obstructing justice.
Prosecutors argued that Baca’s Alzheimer’s didn’t have any effect on his decision to lie to the government.
“His lies did not occur in a vacuum. He lied about his role, his involvement, his knowledge ... and he did so in order to either hide his involvement in that conspiracy or to save face,” prosecutor Brandon Fox said. “That is not what a leader does. That is what a coward does.”