Sonoma County district attorney defends call to not charge ex-deputy who fondled female inmate

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Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said Thursday her office still lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute a former correctional deputy who worked in the Sonoma County Jail even after the recent disclosure of Sheriff’s Office records showing he had admitted to investigators that he had fondled and kissed a female inmate in March 2017.

The files showed the former deputy, identified as Garrett Paulson, was placed on administrative leave soon after a witness to the unlawful sexual contact came forward, triggering a report to his supervisors. Paulson resigned five months later amid an attempt by the Sheriff’s Office to fire him.

Ravitch said records released in the case by the Sheriff’s Office on April 10 under California’s new police transparency law gave her office its first access to the internal affairs files, which are not typically shared with prosecutors. She said her office wanted to review them to see whether the new information could change their decision from two years ago not to pursue criminal charges against Paulson. They did not.

“We found that in this case, we did not have that independent evidence that enabled us to go forward with criminal prosecution,” Ravitch said. “You cannot prosecute someone based on what they say. (Prosecutors) must have independent evidence of the crime.”

Ravitch’s comments marked the first time she has publicly weighed in on the case and her office’s handling of it since the records detailing Paulson’s misconduct were made public. In the meantime, an Army spokesman has confirmed that Paulson is serving as a combat medic specialist stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His Army service was unconfirmed in an initial April 14 story on the case.

In the interview Thursday at her office, Ravitch sought to correct what she said were factual inaccuracies in the summary of steps that led up to Paulson avoiding prosecution in the case.

Prosecutors decided not to file charges against him on July 19, 2017, almost a month after their first substantive interview with the victim, Ravitch said. The internal affairs report, in contrast, said prosecutors had made that determination in May 2017 — a month before the interview with the affected female inmate — citing a “lack of victim cooperation.”

That characterization and the timeline presented in the internal affairs report were incorrect, Ravitch said.

“It wasn’t based on a lack of cooperation by the victim. It was based on lack of evidence,” Ravitch said.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum separately confirmed that the District Attorney’s Office didn’t officially decline to prosecute until July, though it was “not uncommon for detectives and deputy DAs to discuss evidence of a case and get an informal opinion,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

As part of their internal inquiry into Paulson, sheriff’s investigators reported he had admitted “that he “probably began touching (redacted name’s) ‘breast’ to her ‘butt.’ ”

His comments were enough for the Sheriff’s Office to find Paulson violated multiple department polices, including those that bar sexual contact of any kind with inmates and voyeurism. The admissions also led the agency to recommend criminal charges to the District Attorney’s Office.

But Ravitch said her office could not prosecute Paulson based on his admission alone. The legal standard for conviction in criminal cases — guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — is higher than what’s required for internal affairs investigations, she said.

That bar would have been insurmountable because of facts in the case, she said, including the lack of an eyewitness. The inmate who reported Paulson to jail authorities told them she heard moaning coming from the unnamed woman’s cell after Paulson had entered, but she had not seen what was taking place inside, documents show. Paulson told investigators he used a closet door in the jail to block the view into the cell, according to the records.

In a June 20, 2017, interview with the victim and a district attorney investigator, the woman admitted to kissing Paulson and that he touched her butt, but said there was no other physical contact, Ravitch said.

The criminal charge prosecutors were considering prohibits correctional officers from engaging in sexual activity with an inmate, including the rubbing or touching of breasts and sex organs, Ravitch said. The touching of someone’s butt does not meet that standard, Ravitch said. There was no other evidence, other than Paulson’s statement, that he touched the woman’s breast or any other sex organ, she said.

“I don’t think anyone questions that the conduct was inappropriate,” Ravitch said. “The question for me was, ‘Is there enough evidence to bring criminal charges?’ ”

Ravitch said California’s new police transparency law provides prosecutors access to information not previously available to them. While her office had a copy of the criminal report in the Paulson case, the findings of internal affairs investigations were not disclosed to prosecutors prior to the new law.

Crum said criminal affairs investigators and those conducting internal affair reviews do not collaborate on cases. In such cases, internal affairs investigators may have the upper hand. Refusing to provide a statement to them is grounds for firing, Crum said.

Going forward, Ravitch said her office will be reviewing records made available under the new police transparency law in Sonoma County to determine whether law enforcement agencies should have conducted a criminal investigation and if charges were warranted.

Paulson did not respond to a request for comment. After his departure from the Sheriff’s Office, he joined the Army in September 2017 and was eventually assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a combat medic specialist, said Master Sgt. Jose Colon, an Army spokesman. Paulson had not deployed as of Thursday, Colon added.

Jessica Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense, said she could not offer specific information about any background check for Paulson. Such checks are done on all new recruits, she said, and depending on security clearance, they can include interviews with past employers.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets. This story is part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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