LOS ANGELES—A judge has said she will comply with a state appellate court ruling that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva does not have to face a contempt hearing for allegedly ignoring three subpoenas in 2021 to testify before the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), despite the county’s argument the door to a contempt proceeding was not fully closed.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu issued her ruling Oct. 13, less than a month after a three-justice panel of the Second District Court of Appeal issued an order Sept. 21 directing Judge Lu to vacate her decision last November granting the county’s contempt petition and instead deny it without prejudice. Mr. Villanueva had sought appellate review of the earlier ruling by Judge Lu.
On Oct. 6, the county filed court papers with Judge Lu stating that it intended to ask the appellate court to amend its ruling while further arguing that the justices’ order actually supports the county’s position that it may seek contempt under the COC’s subpoena authority through a one-step procedure.
“Accordingly, the order does not appear to set forth any reason to fully deny the petition,” according to the county’s documents.
However, in her Friday ruling Judge Lu wrote that the contempt process actually takes two steps and that when the county already raised the same argument to the appellate court, it was “squarely rejected” by the justices.
“In any event, on the merits, the court finds county’s argument unpersuasive,” the judge further wrote.
The subpoenas issued in September, October and November 2021 required Mr. Villanueva to provide sworn virtual testimony before the COC regarding the sheriff’s reasons for initiating what county attorney Harvinder S. Anand alleged were “highly suspect investigations of public officials overseeing the Sheriff’s Department as well as the department’s policy on internal deputy cliques, such as the Banditos.”
Mr. Anand maintained in his court papers that the internal groups have “plagued the Sheriff’s Department for decades.”
Mr. Villanueva did not comply with all three subpoenas and declined to testify under oath, according to Mr. Anand’s documents.
“Indeed, Sheriff Villanueva has flatly declared he will not agree to be placed under oath under any circumstance,” Mr. Anand stated.
In her court papers, Mr. Villanueva’s attorney Linda Miller Savitt stated that the COC’s demand that the sheriff testify under oath is “inexplicable,” that the sheriff has agreed to voluntarily appear, and that his right to due process is being violated.
“These subpoenas are not for a lawfully authorized purpose, [but] simply because the COC has subpoena power and they believe they are all powerful is not enough,” Ms. Savitt stated. “Subpoena power is not unlimited, [it] is supposed to be used for a lawfully authorized purpose and can be abused.”
Of the three subpoenas at issue, one “clearly interferes with the sheriff’s state law enforcement and criminal investigatory powers, powers expressly excluded from the purview of the COC,” Ms. Savitt argued.
Mr. Villanueva was elected in 2018, but in 2022 lost his bid for a second term to retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. On Sept. 13, Mr. Villanueva announced he will challenge county Supervisor Janice Hahn in the March 2024 primary.