After Year of Delay, Contra Costa County Sheriff Releases Investigation of Dishonest Deputy

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston (Courtesy of Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff)

Contra Costa County has been a key battleground in the legal fight over Senate Bill 1421, the police transparency law that went into effect last January. Now, after a year of delay and litigation, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office has released the first disciplinary record regarding a deputy.

On Nov. 24, 2016, Vacaville police arrested Deputy Christopher Spadaro for drunk driving after he sped away from officers and then abruptly pulled into a parking lot and shut off all his car lights.

When questioned by a Contra Costa County Sheriff’s internal affairs investigator about whether he had been trying to evade police, Spadaro said, “I would never fathom doing such a thing to create, uh, you know, an issue for an officer,” according to a transcript of the interview.

Spadaro told Vacaville police he had only had one beer, but he refused to take a breathalyzer test. A blood test confirmed his blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit, records show.

The Sheriff’s Office internal investigation found that Spadaro lied about his drinking during that encounter. Spadaro had also put paper license plates on his car in order to avoid paying the Benicia-Martinez Bridge toll during his commute.

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Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston first tried to fire Spadaro, but ultimately reduced his discipline to a six-month pay cut. It appears the deputy still works for the county. Spadaro did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky wrote in statement that her office is “investigating the impacts of Deputy Spadaro’s misconduct on recent and pending cases where he was a material witness.”

Lipetzky said timely compliance with both SB 1421 and Brady v. Maryland “are necessary to ensure due process for everyone in our community.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jimmy Lee did not respond to questions about why it took a year to locate and produce the Spadaro file, nor would he clarify if his office has more disciplinary records to produce. Lee said in an email that his office intends to disclose all relevant SB 1421 records.

“Our release of documents continues and we are committed to fulfilling all proper [SB] 1421 requests as quickly as possible,” Lee wrote.

County Supervisor John Gioia, who is one of Livingston’s critics, said he believes the Contra Costa County Sheriff Deputies’ Association pressured Livingston to withhold the document.

"The sheriff should follow the law in disclosing documents despite a contrary position by the Deputy Sheriff's Association," Gioia said. "His job is to follow the law as a county officer.”

DSA President Shawn Welch, in a phone interview Wednesday, denied asking that the document be withheld.

“I never took a stance,” Welch said. “It was delayed because [SB] 1421 is a brand new law” and there were questions about whether Spadaro’s case applies to it.

Welch’s union was one of the first police associations to file suit back in January 2019 to block the county from releasing past misconduct and use-of-force records unsealed by SB 1421. A number of First Amendment and media organizations including KQED joined that suit to argue for the disclosure of records.

A Contra Costa judge’s ruling in that case, which found that SB 1421 should apply retroactively, was upheld by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco on March 12.

However, even after that ruling, Livingston refused to search for records, arguing that searching the “voluminous” internal affairs files constituted an “undue burden” on the department. He was one of the few law enforcement officials statewide to make this argument.

Finally in June, the sheriff said the search for records had been completed. Seven incidents had been identified in which deputies had used force causing death or serious injury.

Then on Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office released Spadaro’s disciplinary file without any explanation.

“It begs the question: why it took litigation for these records to be released? Why were they not promptly released a year ago?” said David Snyder, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, which is involved in the Contra Costa litigation. “A year is not prompt. It makes one wonder if there are other records languishing in the sheriff's files that the public is entitled to see."

Spadaro was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2017, and court records show it was his first criminal offense in Solano County.

However, Spadaro was accused of sexual harassment in 2006 by a female deputy in the Sheriff’s Department. The county settled the suit in 2008 for an unknown amount.

Internal records released Tuesday by the Sheriff’s Office show Spadaro was also reprimanded in 2015. But the Sheriff’s Office said records related to that prior misconduct are not disclosable.

Lee would not say if the sheriff has ongoing concerns about Spadaro’s fitness to be deputy.

Thomas Peele of the Bay Area News Group contributed to this story.

This story was produced by the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state. The project was formed to request and report on previously secret records of police misconduct and use of force in California.