Justice-Obstructing Jail Guard Gets Three Years Probation

Sentenced for Failing to Report Custody Deputy’s Excessive Use of Force

Christopher Johnson leaves Santa Barbara Superior Court after his 2013 arraignment.
Paul Wellman

Christopher Johnson, a onetime County Jail officer, was sentenced to three years of probation with six months spent confined to his home plus 100 hours of community service after being found guilty in federal court for obstruction of justice. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan urged that Johnson be sentenced to 12 months in a federal prison, but U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell opted for the lesser sentence, citing his lack of prior criminal behavior and expressing doubt Johnson belonged behind bars.

Johnson was found guilty this fall for withholding information in his written report pertaining to the use of force he and custody deputy Robert Kirsch used during a confrontation with inmate Charles Owens in September 2013. Johnson and Kirsch escorted Owens into a private room after Owens had been mouthing off to Johnson. Once inside, Johnson brought Owens — who was handcuffed at the time — quickly to the ground and shifted Owen’s body so Kirsch could better kick and knee-drop him multiple times.

Omitted from Johnson’s written report was any mention of the force Kirsch deployed. Owens — a Lompoc gang member who has since been convicted of rape and murder — reported the incident to his attorney who urged that he file a complaint. He also checked himself into the jail infirmary complaining of broken ribs.

Johnson and Kirsch were charged with excessive force. One trial ended with a hung jury, the second with acquittal for both. But Johnson was found guilty in the second trial of obstructing justice. Riordan argued for prison time, stating Johnson never took responsibility for what he did nor expressed remorse. Given Johnson’s stature as a sworn peace officer, Riordan contended obstruction of justice in the line of duty deserved a stiffer sentence.

Johnson’s attorney argued that Riordan was seeking a prison sentence for covering up a crime that jurors said never happened. He was buttressed in his arguments by the U.S. Probation Office, which had recommended a sentence of three- to five-years probation.

In the meantime, Owens had sued Santa Barbara County and the County Jail for injuries sustained at the hands of Kirsch and Johnson. A settlement to that claim was negotiated during a December 15 mediation session between Owens and the County. The monetary terms of that agreement are not yet public, but should be made so within the next two weeks. Kirsch and Johnson were both fired from their jobs shortly after the incident came to the attention of Sheriff Bill Brown.


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