SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes ripped a local judge and state lawmakers Monday at an annual ceremony to honor crime victims, as the county's top law enforcement authorities advocated for tougher laws on fentanyl dealing and railed against criminal justice reform measures in recent years.
A day before state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, was set to ask a senate public safety committee to reconsider a bill that would crack down on fentanyl dealers, Barnes called the other Democrats on the committee who have voted against it in the past "liars."
The legislation Umberg is pushing would give prosecutors the option to pursue a second-degree murder charge against fentanyl dealers with a prior conviction if they get caught again and someone died as a result of a drug deal. It is similar to the so-called Watson Advisement given to convicted drunk drivers who get into a fatal DUI crash.
Barnes said he has campaigned for legislation cracking down on fentanyl dealing for seven years. He said one of the lawmakers told him at a committee hearing in 2018 that "people aren't dying from fentanyl," prompting the sheriff to say, "You are all just liars... You lie to the public every day and I make no apology for saying that."
Barnes and Spitzer were highly critical of Orange County Superior Court Judge Gassia Apkarian for plea deals she gave to two defendants involved in cases in which law enforcement officers were victims.
In one of the cases, four deputies were injured July 19 when Chase Brannon, 21, crashed into several Orange County sheriff's deputies' patrol cars in Yorba Linda in July of last year. He pleaded guilty Feb. 3 to multiple charges of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury and was sentenced to 364 days in jail.
Deputy Kiana Lewis, who was injured in the crash, spoke at the annual ceremony to detail how the crime has affected her. She is continuing to rehabilitate broken ankles and knee and back injuries and is not able to return to work, she said.
The other case that was criticized involved another plea deal Apkarian offered to a defendant. Gilbert Antonio Villalba pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison for a struggle with a Brea police officer on March 10, 2022.
Barnes referred to Apkarian as a "Jerry Brown appointed judge." He also criticized Apkarian for giving Brannon a chance to appeal to have his case dismissed if he clears probation.
Lewis said, "I as a victim was cheated," and said she felt a "broken trust" with the justice system.
"I'm serving more time than he will," she said of her recovery.
Lewis said she was especially offended that the judge said she did not wish to "ruin" the defendant's life.
"We should not have to settle for the bare minimum of justice," she said. "It should have been, `Victims have suffered enough.' "
Spitzer recalled meeting with the judge in her chambers during Villalba's case as he told her he wanted Brea Police Chief Adam Hawley to make a victim impact statement in court.
"The judge said to me, `Did you have anything to do with packing this courtroom today?' " Spitzer said. Spitzer said he did not and that the officers attended the plea deal hearing because "they care deeply about what happens to a comrade in their department."
Spitzer claimed Apkarian told him that Hawley was not a victim but she would let him make the statement anyway. He also criticized the judge for asking Brea Officer Steven Wulff, who was involved in the struggle with Villalba, "Isn't that what you signed up for when you became a police officer?"
Spitzer said he was "flabbergasted."
Spitzer said the efforts to crack down on fentanyl are not a "war on drugs, but a war on murder."
He added, "You have to say to yourself what the hell is going on?"
Spitzer said that while he was out this weekend he got a call from a neighbor informing him of loud music coming from his home. It turned out to be his daughter and her friends were having a backyard party, he said.
"I freaked out," he said. "You know why I freaked out? Because of fentanyl."
He said he was concerned one of the teens might have brought it to the party.
"I lost it. I cannot imagine what it feels like to lose a child," he said.
"It is us holding down the fort," Spitzer said. "It is us who will not give up any ground."
Umberg addressed the group from a pre-recorded tape since he was in Sacramento on legislative business.
"Fentanyl has caused more harm than any drug we've seen in many, many, many years," Umberg said. "What can we do about it? The first thing is what you're doing right now. Raising awareness. ... Many youths don't know that just one pill can kill."