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DOJ says Orange County Sheriff’s Office ran an illegal snitching program for years

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Source: Orange County Sheriff’s Office Facebook


Tony Saavedra

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, West Covina, Calif.

A federal investigation has concluded that Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies violated the rights of criminal defendants by systematically using jailhouse informants to garner incriminating evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday, Oct. 13.

The six-year investigation by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division explored Orange County’s use of jailhouse informants from 2007 through 2016. The probe into the county’s “snitch scandal” also found that prosecutors failed to disclose to defense attorneys evidence about the informants that could have helped their clients, as required by law.

Furthermore, investigators found that for years Orange County sheriff’s deputies maintained and concealed systems to track, manage and reward the informants. Some of the informants received special meals, such as In-N-Out burgers, and other privileges, as well as reduced sentences, for their work, the report said.

While acknowledging reforms made by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department, the 63-page federal report said the changes do not go far enough and the relationship between the two agencies still needs to improve to regain the public’s trust.

“It has been eight years since much of the misconduct came to light, and OCDA has still not taken adequate steps to ensure that prosecutors understand and carry out their constitutional disclosure obligations,” the report said. “Eliminating the pattern or practice of (civil rights) violations that we have identified will require a level of cooperation and coordination between OCSD and OCDA that does not now exist.”

Independent panel needed

Federal investigators also said an independent body should be created to revisit every case in which a jailhouse informant was used to determine whether civil rights abuses occurred and how they can be rectified. The report chides the agencies for not already doing so.

“The informant controversy continues to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the Orange County criminal legal system,” said the strongly worded report. “Neither agency has implemented sufficient remedial measures to identify criminal cases impacted by unlawful informant activities or prevent future constitutional violations.”

In a prepared statement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that those accused of a crime have the constitutional right to legal counsel and the due process of law — both of which were repeatedly violated in Orange County.

“Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have an obligation to uphold these rights in their fight against crime and in their pursuit of justice, including in the way that they use custodial informants against criminal defendants,” Clarke said.

Allegations denied at the time

At the time of the violations, former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was in charge of that office, while the late Sandra Hutchens headed the Sheriff’s Department. Both had vehemently denied allegations that the agencies had surreptitiously created a network of experienced jailhouse informants who were placed near targeted inmates.

Todd Spitzer is now the district attorney, and Don Barnes is the sheriff.

Spitzer, in a prepared statement, said the federal report found what has long been known, that a “robust” jailhouse informant network was improperly used.

“I have made it unequivocally clear that I refuse to accept the ‘win-at-all costs’ mentality of the prior OCDA administration,” said Spitzer, who took over the office in 2019 after campaigning on the abuses. “The violation of a single defendant’s constitutional rights calls into question the fairness of the entire criminal justice system — and I have terminated cheaters who violated defendants’ rights and I will continue to do so.”

Spitzer has said that no jailhouse informants have been used since he reformed the process in 2019.

Barnes said his department already has taken steps to protect the civil rights of inmates.

“I take seriously the issue of protecting the constitutional rights of the people in our custody,” Barnes said. “I look forward to the DOJ reviewing our current policies, processes and procedures regarding custodial informants. I am confident they will find our current practices have addressed many of their recommendations, and anticipate a prompt and complete resolution to this matter.”

Spa killings led to disclosure

The secret informant network was uncovered in 2014 by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders while representing the worst mass killer in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai. In a 2011 shooting rampage, Dekraai killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon where his ex-wife worked.

Sanders found that an informant who had been used in multiple cases had been improperly dispatched by prosecutors and deputies to get incriminating evidence from Dekraai inside the jail, a civil rights violation because he had been formally charged and was represented by an attorney. The tactic had not been disclosed to Dekraai’s defense.

Those improprieties led to then- Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals’ decision to boot the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case and drop the death penalty from consideration — one of the worst defeats ever for a district attorney who tearfully promised to secure a death penalty conviction. Making the loss all the more bitter was that Dekraai had immediately confessed when arrested; the use of informants was not crucial to the case.

With the release of the DOJ report, Sanders said, “This is an incredibly important day for the Orange County justice system. Our office has been fighting to expose these civil rights violations for a decade. Today the United States Department of Justice found our allegations were correct, that (the) conduct of these two agencies deprived many defendants of their constitutional rights, and that still not enough has been done to protect the rights of the accused.”

The California Department of Justice also launched an investigation during the snitch scandal, but it quietly concluded with no report.

The federal investigation found what Sanders as well as the Fourth District Court of Appeal had long concluded, that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies were systematically abusing defendants’ right to counsel and withholding evidence on informants.

New details

But the U.S. probe offered new details after reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewing dozens of witnesses, including 17 interviews with Orange County prosecutors. The department also monitored developments in criminal cases, including those that have recently completed.

At least 50 times, prosecutors told investigators that they did not know of civil rights violations or had only learned about them after the trial. However, the report said prosecutors failed to act even when they saw obvious indications that jail informants were operating outside the rules.

In some cases, prosecutors merely took the word of police investigators that there were no civil rights issues with the informant, without doing an independent investigation, the report said. Prosecutors often reacted defensively to allegations by the defense of informant violations.

The probe also found that the district attorney’s revised informant policies are not consistent with the sheriff’s policies. For one thing, they have different definitions of a jailhouse informant.

Federal investigators also found that the D.A.’s office and Sheriff’s Department did not have an adequate searchable electronic database for tracking informants. The report recommended the two agencies develop comprehensive and integrated jailhouse informant polices.

The Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section will be contacting members of the Orange County community for input on reforms to address the investigation’s findings. And the report said the office would work with the county in reforming the system.

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(c)2022 San Gabriel Valley Tribune, West Covina, Calif.

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