No judge reviewed Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister’s personnel file and cleared him of untruthful behavior, as the sheriff wrote in response to questions last month.
Armbrister said Friday that he was mistaken when he wrote that a judge had conducted an “in camera,” or in chambers, review of his personnel file.
In response to questions we sent to all area law enforcement in April about policies on officer truthfulness, one of Armbrister’s answers contained a statement that “The Judge in that case viewed my personnel file ‘in camera,’ and he found there was nothing to show I had done anything toward untruthful behavior, nor with intent.”
But that didn’t happen. Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria confirmed Friday that there was nothing in the court’s records to indicate that such a review had occurred.
Armbrister said the statement was because he “was either misinformed or simply misunderstood some information” in regards to a case he investigated.
In a July 2017 sex crime investigation, Armbrister lost a recording of an interview with the accuser, other material evidence was not collected from the scene, and a search warrant to collect the defendant’s DNA had gone missing. McCabria determined that there was “no evidence of bad faith” by the involved officers.
“Attention to detail, careful scene investigation and coordinated follow-up can be fairly characterized here as unimpressive. Even mystifying and confounding,” the judge wrote in a memorandum — but he did not dismiss the case over those issues.
“If the State chooses to go to trial with evidence that leaves itself open for attack in the manner that has been presented in the course of these motions, (the defendant’s) due process will be provided when the State is required to try to convince a jury that this evidence should support the crime charged” to the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, McCabria wrote.
However, the defense attorney on the case filed a formal complaint against Armbrister and the other two sheriff’s office employees on the case. The complaint was investigated by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. The investigation concluded in October 2020 — about two months after the Democratic primary, when Armbrister was presumed to be the next sheriff because he faced no challenger in the November general election.
The external investigation ultimately determined that Armbrister had violated department policies, but not the law. He said Friday that he had been suspended without pay for five days as a result.
Armbrister said the prosecutor on the case “had said an in-camera review was the next step and I never heard otherwise so my mistake was thinking that step took place. And I could have sworn Judge McCabria had conducted the review but I was wrong.”
We asked Armbrister what the public is supposed to think if, whether in good faith or bad and whether he believed the review had happened or he didn’t, he had fabricated an event that never occurred by saying that a judge did an in camera review of his file and cleared him. We also asked whether that is the standard of accuracy he expects employees to apply in investigations and whether it is OK for employees to write in a report that something happened if it didn’t, just because they think it did.
Armbrister responded, “People make mistakes.” He made comments about the defense attorney who filed the complaint, then continued, “I believed the file had been reviewed. I said that. I was wrong and I’m trying to make it right. Take it or leave it.”
We asked, to clarify, if he thought the judge was going to make a ruling that could impact whether he was able to testify in Douglas County District Court but didn’t ask what the results of the judge’s review were.
“I was under the impression the defense would stop at nothing to get to my file and the in-camera review was standing in her way so that’s what happened. And then the case was resolved. I knew what any review would find… that I had never been untruthful or intentionally corrupt, so I didn’t follow up once the case was concluded,” Armbrister said.
The defendant in the case had initially been charged with aggravated criminal sodomy, a level-1 felony punishable by anywhere from roughly 12 to 50 years in prison. He ultimately pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor battery charges and was sentenced to a year of probation.
The answer in which Armbrister wrote that the judge had reviewed his file was a response to a question about how to determine whether evidence is “material.” It asked nothing about law enforcement leadership’s own experiences. Asked why, in an article about officer truthfulness issues, he answered with so much more than he needed to say without first verifying that what he was saying was accurate, Armbrister said, via text message, “I said so much because I HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE!”
The district attorney’s office had not yet responded substantively Friday to an email sent Tuesday, asking whether they had any information about an in camera review of the sheriff’s personnel file.
Here is the question we sent April 18 and Armbrister’s full answer, which we received April 21:
Q: The legal standard is whether evidence is “material” to innocence or guilt. To someone without a law degree, that sounds like a fairly subjective standard. How should law enforcement assess whether evidence is material? Under this policy, if materiality of certain evidence is questionable, should officers err on the side of disclosure or nondisclosure?
Armbrister: I believe the third definition in Black’s Law Dictionary of “material” that “of such a nature that knowledge of the item would affect a person’s decision making” is most germane in this case. I think you are right in that the term can be ambiguous and subjective, so I will err on the side of caution when deciding what needs to be disclosed and what does not.
My own personal situation and experience plays deeply into this. A well-publicized allegation was made against me and my truthfulness during a criminal investigation. Based on that allegation, an independent investigation was completed by an outside agency. The findings were clear that I had acted in good faith but in poor practice and violated department policies in that I unintentionally failed to move a recorded interview to the proper server to be preserved as part of an investigation. There was absolutely no information showing I acted maliciously or nefariously, nor with intent. In fact, it showed that I had, at NO POINT, tried to hide my mistakes or obscure them from both the defense and courts. I did not know that the recorded interview had not been uploaded or saved to the system until the case proceeded to trial.
And to that end, I received administrative punishment for the policy violations, and the District Attorney at the time reviewed the investigation and found there was no criminal conduct or intent to obscure information on my part. The Judge in that case viewed my personnel file “in camera,” and he found there was nothing to show I had done anything toward untruthful behavior, nor with intent.
My case is an excellent example: There is an allegation of untruthfulness; however, after the system has looked at it from a Brady-Giglio standard, it remains an allegation and not “material” information “of such a nature that knowledge of the item would affect a person’s decision making.” So, if I had a deputy in my agency with these exact set of facts presented to me, I would retain all information in the personnel file, but I would not state he or she has any material Brady Giglio findings that should be disclosed as that is the standard the law requires. Honest mistakes and intentional deceit are two entirely different things and will be handled as such.
In response to a separate question last month, Armbrister wrote, “I now have an extra layer of accountability in that I have told you and the public how I intend to handle these situations, and if I stray from my promise, you and the community will hold me accountable. I want to avoid letting the community down as I’m trying to maintain community trust, rather than tear it down.”
Read the full article:
Here’s the statement Armbrister sent via email Friday:Lawrence-Times-Correction-05.06.2022