In Orange County, California, the sheriff and prosecutors have been accused of colluding to violate defendants’ rights. Now, it’s their turn to be defendants.
A civil rights group has accused Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas of running a longstanding, secret and illegal jail informant program that has violated the rights of countless defendants for over 30 years, according to a bombshell lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The complaint, filed in Orange County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union along with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, bolsters the allegations of Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders that the county was running an expansive jailhouse informant program. The corruption scandal has rocked the county’s criminal justice system for more than four years and has led to the unraveling of nearly 20 high-profile cases and threatens to upend still more.
The scheme implicates multiple crimes and constitutional violations.
The ACLU claims that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County district attorney’s office have colluded to plant a large number of informants in jail cells for decades in order to obtain damning information from defendants who are charged with crimes and are awaiting trial. Such interrogations can give prosecutors an unfair advantage, by giving them access to information without the knowledge of the inmate’s lawyer. The Sixth Amendment prohibits the use of government-directed informants to question defendants who have already been charged with crimes.
The suit says that jail informants frequently obtained information and confessions from defendants through threats of violence, including murder, and that they were rewarded for their unlawful work by the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department with payments and sentence reductions. In court, prosecutors illegally withheld how and why their informants gleaned the damning information, despite being required by law to disclose this information to defendants and their representatives, according to the lawsuit.
What does the ACLU hope to achieve by suing?
In its lawsuit, the ACLU plans to ask a judge to order authorities to notify every criminal defendant whose case was affected by the use of an informant. The ACLU also wants a court to declare that prosecutors and sheriff's officials violated the rights of defendants and order them to stop the unconstitutional use of informants.
"The Orange County criminal justice system is in disrepair and disrepute," the lawsuit claims. "Public faith in the integrity of the Orange County district attorney's office" and the Sheriff's Department "and in their ability to seek justice has been eviscerated by continuous revelations of systemic misconduct."
The suit was a long time coming, as it appears the officials’ collusion was widely known and had already resulted in one-off judicial reprimand, as in the case of Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in a 2011 shooting.
Just days after the 2011 shooting, sheriff’s deputies moved Dekraai next to a prolific jail snitch, Fernando Perez, who questioned Dekraai about his case. Then prosecutors and law enforcement officers interviewed Perez, and a recording device was placed in Dekraai’s cell, capturing more than 100 hours of conversations between the pair.
Officials’ machinations caught up with them in court. The judge in Dekraai’s case hammered law enforcement and prosecutors.
[T]hen-Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty option for Dekraai due to “ongoing prosecutorial misconduct,” and the prosecution team being “unable or unwilling” to provide all relevant records to ensure that Dekraai would get a fair penalty trial. Goethals instead sentenced Dekraai to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
The sentencing came two years after Goethals had recused Rackauckas’ entire office from further prosecuting the mass murder case. In that ruling, Goethals chastised sheriff’s deputies who had previously testified, saying that they “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld information” during their testimony about informant use in jail. He acknowledged that there was no direct evidence Rackauckas had actively participated in the concealment of evidence but still faulted the prosecutor for “chronic failure” to comply with his court orders to produce evidence, which violated Dekraai’s constitutional rights.
Dekraai’s public defender, Scott Sanders, kept investigating; he found not just a pattern of violations but a system for them.
Sanders requested more information about the contacts between the two men. He discovered that Perez had also been used as an informant in a number of other cases, including against another one of his own clients. … He pushed to uncover what would turn out to be tens of thousands of records about the use of informants inside county jails by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies. In a blistering 505-page motion filed in 2014, Sanders detailed all of his findings, which demonstrated the existence of the informant program.
Over the course of four years, Sanders found a “two-decades-old computerized system that detailed critical information about jail inmates and informants” and more than four years of records proving the sheriff’s deputies tracked informants. In addition to internal memos, his discoveries proved that the jail informant scheme is systematic and well-established.
The defendants’ defense has been denial, so far. According to the sheriff, there was no informant program, no records related to informant activities. They’re only willing to admit to “deficiencies in … policies and protocols involving jailhouse informants.” Likewise, the DA has denied any intentional prosecutorial misconduct. Both parties have claimed the scandal is fake news.
Denial won’t work for long: DOJ, the CA attorney general, and the Orange County grand jury are investigating. There’s no reason to think that DOJ will come through—and the grand jury’s already showed clear bias—but California Attorney General Xavier Becerra can be trusted to hold Orange County accountable.
Becerra will have the backing of the judiciary. It’s not just Judge Goethals but California’s 4th District Court of Appeal that’s found the jail informant scheme to be very real and very serious.
The ACLU’s representing the People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement as well as three Orange County residents: Theresa Smith, whose son Caesar Cruz was killed by Anaheim police; Tina Jackson, the founder of a prison services organization; and Bethany Webb, whose mother was injured and sister killed in the Dekraai shooting. They represent a broad array of interests; of course, upholding the Constitution is in everyone’s interest.