Former CHP officer awarded $1 million over sexual material shared during overtime probe

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - FEBRUARY 01: A California Highway Patrol vehicle waits to turn onto Washington blvd after departing the CHP Office near downtown Los Angeles, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
A Los Angeles County jury has awarded a former California Highway Patrol employee $1 million in damages after she sued the agency for mishandling sexual content found on her cellphone. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Years after a controversial overtime fraud probe, a Los Angeles County jury has awarded a former California Highway Patrol employee $1million in damages after she sued the agency for mishandling sexual content found on her cellphone.

Doris Peniche, a former CHP overtime coordinator at the East Los Angeles office, claimed her colleagues improperly viewed and shared her sexual photos and videos after obtaining the material through a search warrant.

She sued CHP and several individuals for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and distribution of private sexual material, among other charges. The jury ruled in her favor Thursday after a three-week trial.

The overtime probe that led to Peniche’s phone being searched first became public in 2019, when CHP Southern Division Chief Mark Garrett held a news conference alleging dozens of officers had bilked the agency for unworked hours.

The search warrant for Peniche’s phone data, including photos and cell tower pings, was issued in July 2018.

Garrett said officers assigned to protect Caltrans workers repairing Southern California freeways billed CHP for eight-hour overtime shifts even when the protection detail did not take that long.

Officers at the East L.A. station claimed at least $360,000 worth of fraudulent overtime, Garrett said.

Dozens were relieved of duty, and the California attorney general’s office filed felony fraud and theft charges against 54 officers from the station.

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The roster cleave was so broad that it triggered an agency-wide shuffling of staff because the station was home to only approximately 100 officers to begin with.

Though the case gained headlines and was touted as a major corruption investigation by the CHP and attorney general, charges against all but one defendant have since been dismissed.

Peniche was fired from the CHP in May 2019 amid the investigation, her lawyer, Charles Murray, said.

Murray argued during the civil trial that CHP investigators improperly shared the sexual content from her device with one another and with at least one other employee outside of the case, Murray said.

Members of the criminal investigation team uploaded the content onto a shared drive, witnesses testified, and also shared it with administrators.

Lt. Martin Geller, who was author of the search warrant, discovered photos and videos of Peniche giving and receiving oral sex upon his initial review of the evidence. He told other investigating officers about the content in order to alert them, he testified.

Geller was following CHP policy that potential evidence be shared with the administrative team, he said.

Murray questioned that policy, arguing it didn’t make sense and ultimately harmed Peniche.

“You have an investigator that knows there’s sex material and it is highly sensitive,” Murray said in court. “It doesn’t appear to be relevant, but he goes ahead and uploads it to the criminal shared drive. You decide if that policy makes sense.”

A CHP spokeswoman declined to comment.

Where internal investigators saw corruption in the overtime investigation, attorneys for the accused officers and a number of former CHP leaders saw “standard operating procedure.”

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Officers assigned to Caltrans overtime details routinely remained on call for a full eight hours even if they were not in the field and were entitled to the extra pay because they could be called back to the repair site, attorneys argued in a dismissal motion filed in 2022.

That approach had been the procedure established by CHP since at least 2010, according to a number of former CHP executives including ex-Southern Division Chiefs William Siegel and Art Acevedo.

In late 2022, an L.A. County Superior Court judge reduced the charges to misdemeanors, granting the 54 officers entry into a diversion program as long as they satisfied certain requirements including paying restitution.

All but one have paid restitution and had their cases dismissed, according to the attorney general’s office. The remaining officer, Pedro Chavez, is due back in court in August.

Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who represented some of the officers at disciplinary hearings, called the overtime prosecution “shameful” and “one of the great frauds by corrupt law enforcement in California history.”

Ironically, he said, the state spent more money attempting to prosecute officers than they ever alleged was stolen.

CHP Sgts. Robert Ruiz and Matt Lentz on the administrative team shared the material with Capt. Melissa Hammond, who was a lieutenant at the time, Peniche’s complaint said.

The complaint also said Hammond told CHP Sgt. Connie Guzman that the images “confirmed” rumors that had been circulating about Peniche having multiple sexual partners, including her brother-in-law.

Murray denied the rumors and said that the images did not show Peniche with her brother-in-law or with multiple men. He also said that Hammond and others acted outside the scope of their duties to intentionally harm Peniche.

“They are trying to see if there’s enough material to fire over 50 people,” he said of the overtime investigation. “Why was my client’s folder the only one with a subfolder of photos? Was it because she was the overtime coordinator or was it because she was disliked immensely?”

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Defense lawyer Joseph Wheeler said his clients appropriately reviewed the content as part of their investigation.

“You can’t determine whether something’s relevant unless you actually review it,” he said during the trial.

Wheeler attempted to place some responsibility on Peniche, arguing that she should not have allowed sexual photos of herself to be taken.

“Once that search warrant is issued for the data on your phone, any expectation of privacy is gone,” he said. “If you wanted to keep your body private, why would you let other people take photos of you?”

Although Peniche testified that she was concerned about where her sexual material was spread and who had access to it, Wheeler said there was no evidence the content was leaked outside of CHP.

Before deliberations, Murray told the jury to look beyond CHP’s evidence policies when deciding the case.

“You can send a message and say, ‘I don’t care what your policy is, that ain’t right what you did,’” he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.