Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
In 2019, Annie Walker reported a sexual assault to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office about a week after it happened. She hoped the person who raped her would be held accountable, and that it would give her a sense of justice and help her heal.
But after months of trying to get answers and communicate with the detective handling her investigation, she says she was left frustrated and retraumatized by her interactions with the sheriff’s office.
The detective and sergeant working Walker’s case told her they’d completed the investigation, but would not be forwarding her case to the district attorney’s office. This was something that deeply distressed her.
“There are these departments or things set up to assist you and help you. And then the fact that they’re not able to, or they don’t at least communicate with you, just puts the victim in an even worse mental state of feeling just hopeless and helpless,” Walker said of her experience.
In the end, no arrest was made in Walker’s case. But the sheriff’s department marked it as “cleared.”
Clearing a case means law enforcement has moved it forward after a completed investigation, either by making an arrest or using something called “clearance by exceptional means.”
Exceptional clearance is something that law enforcement agencies can use when they know who committed a crime, where that person is and have enough evidence to arrest them — but they say they can’t take action for reasons outside their control.
This could be a case where the victim stopped cooperating with an investigation, where a perpetrator died before arrest or where they are already being prosecuted in another jurisdiction and can’t be extradited. “Exceptional clearance” describes a fairly specific set of circumstances, and is rarely used by law enforcement agencies.
But in 2018 and 2019, cases were cleared this way frequently at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office cleared about 81% of sexual assault cases by exceptional means in 2019, and about 57.9% in 2018. In comparison, the department cleared 13.6% of cases by arrest in 2019 and 10.8% in 2018. Walker’s case was one of many cleared by exceptional means during those years.
CapRadio repeatedly made requests to discuss these significant changes in the number of cases closed by exceptional clearance with the sheriff’s office, both via email and in-person, but the sheriff’s office has refused.
Arizona State University professor Cassia Spohn, who has studied the exceptional clearance of sexual assault cases in other jurisdictions, reviewed the Sacramento sheriff’s data. She says she didn’t see a way the office could be legitimately clearing so many of their sexual assault cases by exceptional means.
“They labeled this exceptional clearance,” Spohn said. “It was supposed to be the exception and not the rule.”
And at other Sacramento County law enforcement agencies, it is.
At the Citrus Heights Police Department, which provided data comparable to the sheriff’s office, officers seldom cleared any cases by exceptional means between 2016 and 2019 — none in 2019 and 2018, and only a few in previous years.
The Sacramento Police Department did not provide comparable data, but what a sergeant had to say was similar to what the Citrus Heights Police Department and Spohn explained — this is a designation that is used sparingly in sexual assault cases.
‘It was supposed to be the exception’
There are many ways a sexual assault case can end.
It can be cleared by arrest, which means officers have completed an investigation, arrested a suspect and plan to forward the case on to the district attorney.
A case can also be marked as “unfounded” if, through an investigation, officers have determined that no crime occurred.
Or it can be cleared by exceptional means.
Once officers have completed an investigation, they can also suspend a case when there are no other leads to investigate and there isn’t probable cause to make an arrest. A case that’s suspended is still considered open and can be revisited should new information surface. This was by far the most common way for sexual assault cases to end, according to data from Sacramento County agencies reviewed by CapRadio. Even at the Sacramento County sheriff, most sexual assault cases were marked “suspended” in 2016 and 2017.
Michelle Hendricks ran the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s sex crimes unit until she retired in spring 2020. When we spoke with her that year, she declined to answer questions about the department’s use of exceptional clearance.
CapRadio emailed data to her, and to her successor after her retirement, but the sheriff’s office has declined to discuss its policy on exceptional clearance.
But Elizabeth Donegan, a former Austin Police Department investigator who now trains law enforcement on how to handle sexual assault cases, had some thoughts on why these cases may end up cleared.
She said it could be that, somewhere along the way, officers could have misunderstood training and policy: They perhaps didn’t know they weren’t supposed to clear cases this way.
But there’s also a benefit to law enforcement agencies: to the public, a cleared case looks like a case where justice was served.
“The public interprets that as we've caught the rapist and there's some sense of justice for the victim,” Donegan explained. “So it appears that more cases are being closed and rapists held accountable than they actually are. ... Disingenuous is too light a word to use. I mean that agencies are using this to prop up what the public views as a safe community.”
Sacramento County isn’t the only place where this has happened. Police departments in other parts of the country have also been found to have high exceptional clearance rates. Similar discoveries have even been made in other departments in California.
Spohn and Katharine Tellis took a look at clearance of rape and attempted rape cases in Los Angeles between 2005 and 2009. In their study, they found that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department were clearing most of these cases by exceptional means.
Over that period, they found that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department cleared 54.2% of rape and attempted rape cases by exceptional means, and the police department cleared 33.5% of these cases this way.
Some of the detectives they interviewed, particularly with Los Angeles police, said that they would intentionally take problematic cases to the district attorney to reject.
This made Spohn worry that, rather than doing a full investigation to convince a prosecutor they could get a conviction, detectives were giving up — ultimately taking a thin case file to a prosecutor and later exceptionally clearing the case.
“There's a clear pattern where the exceptional clearance was being overused, I would argue, being misused to sweep these cases under the rug,” Spohn said.
In Sacramento County, Annie Walker didn’t actually know her case was cleared by exceptional means until CapRadio obtained this data and found her case. Given that officers need to have probable cause to make an arrest in order to mark a case as exceptionally cleared, she says it didn’t add up.
Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
“This is concerning to me, that mine was cleared in that way because they didn’t … investigate enough to get evidence,” Walker said.
Spohn took a look at Walker’s investigative file and questioned how this case could be cleared by exceptional means, as well.
“Even if there was probable cause, I don’t see that there’s anything beyond the control of law enforcement from making an arrest … clearly the victim was willing to cooperate,” Spohn said. “And if the detectives thought there was probable cause, they probably should have arrested the suspect.”
Donegan also reviewed Walker’s case file and said that it looked like the sheriff’s department had done a thorough investigation of her assault. But still, she didn’t see the probable cause that was needed for a legitimate exceptional clearance. In her opinion, the case should have been suspended rather than marked as cleared.
Walker is still searching for answers in her case nearly three years after her assault and has turned to local and state authorities, asking them to take a closer look at what happened to her case. But there’s one thing she says the sheriff’s office could have done that would have made the situation better for her: kept her in the loop and explained why her case ended this way.
“That would have been life-changing,” she said. “It would have made me feel like they wanted to look at me as a human being and somebody that wants and needs closure to something horrible that’s happened to them.”