Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies systematically violated the Constitution by using jailhouse whistleblowers to extract incriminating statements from other inmates, a scathing federal investigation has found.
The 63-page report released Thursday concludes a nearly six-year investigation into the two agencies by the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, following a scandal that rocked the Orange County court system. .
It is not uncommon for imprisoned informants to offer information to prosecutors or investigators. But federal investigators said the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office used some jail inmates as “law enforcement officers” and created a snitch system that was maintained, rotated and concealed to ” track, manage and reward these gatekeeper informants”.
The prison’s informant system operated for years, with officials orchestrating a cover-up to conceal its repeated use from defense attorneys, judges and the public, according to the report.
“Orange County’s systematic violations of the constitutional rights of defendants have jeopardized countless lawsuits, and it has pulled the rug out from under the feet of already grieving families,” said Cristine DeBerry, Founder and Director of the California Attorneys Alliance, in response to the report. “When law enforcement violates their constitutional duties, they not only undermine trust, they often undermine accountability.”
Federal prosecutors began their investigation in late 2016 after former Orange County Dist. Atti. Tony Rackauckas offered “unfettered access” to documents and staff.
The Justice Department’s ‘pattern or practice’ findings come eight years after a deputy public defender representing Scott Dekraai, who slaughtered his ex-wife and seven others in a mass shooting in Seal Beach , first took issue with how the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office used a prolific jailhouse snitch to extract incriminating statements without Dekraai’s attorney present.
“The findings of this report represent a critically important development for the county justice system,” said Scott Sanders, who represented Dekraai. “We have been alleging since 2014 the same civil rights violations analyzed by the DOJ, and now we finally have a government agency outlining why we were right and how bad conduct was by both agencies.”
The report determined that Orange County officials repeatedly violated the 6th Amendment, which prohibits law enforcement from using informants to obtain statements from defendants represented by counsel, and the 14th Amendment , which requires prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to a defendant.
He also found that although several prosecutors appeared to ignore information that should have been shared with defendants, such as the credibility of the snitch or obtaining favorable treatment, many prosecutors did not question the information. , even if the same informants were used. in several criminal cases.
The prison’s informant system, which was primarily used in homicide and gang-related cases, operated for at least nine years until 2016, according to the federal investigation.
Deputies in the department’s Special Handling Unit covered much of the informant maneuvering inside the prison, moving experienced snitches near defendants in often high-profile cases, according to the report.
Normally, unit deputies are given the complicated task of housing inmates in the prison to ensure their safety. For example, the unit often receives information from gang investigators regarding street politics – which gangs are fighting each other or if a specific inmate might be the target of attack by certain groups. People accused of certain offenses are also often housed away from the general population as they may be targets of violence.
The Special Handling Unit, however, instead “requisitioned these systems to conduct criminal investigations using in-custody informants,” according to the report, often using the same informants who were directly or implicitly told they could obtain information. special benefits in prison, or flexible sentences, for their work.
By doing so, incriminating statements could be obtained by informants from defendants who have already obtained a lawyer, and whom the investigators could therefore no longer question without the presence of their lawyer.
Federal prosecutors determined that the Sheriff’s Department placed informants near the defendants depicted, ultimately gaining the confidence of the defendants behind bars.
They discovered that the department was hiding files to track and manage informants inside the prison. During the trials, prosecutors concealed the true nature of the information they presented, according to the report.
These findings were not surprising. During the Dekraai trial, it was revealed that deputies repeatedly planted informants near high-level defendants to extract confessions.
The fallout from the scandal led former Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals to withdraw the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the Dekraai lawsuit and sparked new trials in more than a dozen cases. cases, including several homicides.
The scandal led to the downfall of two of the county’s top law enforcement officials: then-sheriff Sandra Hutchens chose not to run for re-election, and the scandal was at the heart of Dist . Atti. Todd Spitzer’s loss to longtime prosecutor Tony Rackauckas.
“Overwhelmingly, the Justice Department report repeats the very problems I faced in becoming the elected district attorney for Orange County, which is cleaning up the public corruption that existed under the previous administration” , Spitzer said. “The report ultimately concluded that they committed willful negligence in the People v. Dekraai lawsuit.”
The Justice Department found that Rackauckas’ prosecutors “repeatedly violated the defendants’ 14th Amendment rights.”
Rackauckas argued that the question was exaggerated and that no one in his office intentionally withheld evidence. A county grand jury report broadly supported his view, concluding that only a few “rogue deputies” had done anything wrong.
But the federal investigation revealed much the same findings that Sanders uncovered while investigating the extent of the prison informant scandal.
The report recognizes that following the scandal, reforms have been undertaken.
Spitzer vowed he would not allow a repeat of the constitutional violations that occurred from 2007 to 2016.
His office implemented reforms with input from the Justice Department, including requiring express consent from the district attorney before using a prison informant. Spitzer also said he conducted his own investigation into the informant scandal and fired a senior assistant prosecutor for failing to properly disclose informant information to the defense. Two other veteran homicide prosecutors resigned or retired while under investigation.
But the report criticized both agencies for failing to properly reform their practices and made recommendations for further reforms.
While the district attorney’s office has changed hands, Sheriff Don Barnes, who was Hutchens’ right-hand man, continues to run the department as his elected successor.
Barnes insisted he made changes. As undersheriff, Barnes said, he helped change department policy and training governing the use of informants in county jails, which now requires his written approval.
“The unit that existed then, I stopped it,” he said. “We’ve replaced it with highly trained people who look at information in prisons differently than it was before.”
It wasn’t until 2016, under Hutchens, that MPs were educated on constitutional protections for using informants in criminal cases. The agency also refined its policy that year to require the sheriff to review the use of informants.
The prosecutor’s office produced a special report in July 2020 that focused exclusively on the actions of two prosecutors in the Dekraai case, which the report criticized.
“Even now, nearly six years after Dekraai’s recusal decision,” the report reads, “the OCDA has failed to adequately investigate the scope of the county’s in-custody informant program. of Orange.”
While the two agencies have attempted to resolve the informant scandal, they remain at odds with each other, including over the definition of a prison informant.
The report concluded with 23 sweeping recommendations for both agencies, including developing an integrated informant policy that protects the constitutional rights of defendants. The district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department are also expected to team up to review previous investigations and prosecutions involving informants.
Federal prosecutors have urged the county to create an independent body to further examine past lawsuits that may have been marred by the scandal.
“There are good recommendations,” Sanders said, “but they won’t come to fruition without incredibly careful oversight, so that’s my hope.”