Orange County

ACLU Sues OC DA, Sheriff Over Jailhouse Informants

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Orange County District Attorney's Office and the sheriff's department Wednesday alleging widespread, systemic corruption and constitutional abuses in the use of jailhouse informants.

The lawsuit alleges that prosecutors and sheriff's officials have operated a confidential informant program for three decades, directing jail inmates to elicit evidence against cellmates in illegal ways. It contends informants were intentionally placed in disciplinary isolation with other cellmates to pump them for information about their cases. The informants also illegally sought evidence against cellmates who were represented by an attorney, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, some of the informants who were Mexican Mafia members would threaten some of their targets with beatings or death threats.

The county's use of jailhouse informants became a major issue in multiple criminal cases over the past several years -- most notably the trial of Seal Beach beauty salon mass killer Scott Dekraai, who could have faced a death sentence but received only life without the possibility of parole.

The ACLU contends 18 criminal cases in the county have been tainted by the so-called snitch scandal, meaning defendants got breaks or had charges dismissed because of allegations of constitutional abuses.

The District Attorney's Office defended its use of informants, saying the process has been "consistently upheld" by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Therefore, the Orange County District Attorney's Office will continue to lawfully use all evidence lawfully developed by local law enforcement and continue on our mission, which is 'to enhance public safety and welfare and create a sense of security in the community through the vigorous enforcement of criminal and civil laws in a just, honest, efficient, and ethical manner,"' according to a statement from the office.

The District Attorney's Office also lashed out at the ACLU, saying the organization "is against most things the Orange County District Attorney stands for, including enjoining gang members from terrorizing neighborhoods, keeping sexually violent predators civilly committed and pursuing the death penalty against the worst of the worst murderers."

The Sheriff's Department issued a statement saying it has "cooperated fully with the (state) Attorney General and Department of Justice investigations into the use of informants in the OC jail. Regarding the lawsuit filed today by the ACLU, OCSD does not comment on pending litigation."

The ACLU asks in the suit that a judge appoint a monitor to oversee sweeping changes in the use of informants -- a move that typically arises from civil actions filed against law enforcement agencies by the U.S. Department of Justice. The department announced in December 2016 it has opened a civil "pattern-or-practice" investigation into the county's use of jailhouse informants. That probe is ongoing.

ACLU attorney Somil Trivedi said the organization is skeptical federal officials will follow through with the investigation, which began under President Barack Obama's administration.

"We don't know where that investigation is, so we moved forward," Trivedi said.

The state Attorney General's Office, meanwhile, has an ongoing investigation into the handling of the case against Dekraai. Outrageous governmental misconduct in the use of jailhouse informants eliminated the death sentence as a possible penalty for Dekraai, and extended hearings on the issue protracted the case for years -- to the dismay of victims' families seeking closure.

Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed in Dekraai's rampage, is one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, which repeats many of the allegations made over the past several years by Dekraai's attorney, Scott Sanders.

But Trivedi said the lawsuit will go beyond Sanders' allegations, since he was limited in his criminal case to evidence related solely to his client. The ACLU will be able to collect information about any case involving a jailhouse informant, Trivedi said.

Trivedi said the ACLU believes the misuse of informants was "so pervasive" that it may have impacted many more cases.

The lawsuit seeks to put a halt to the informant program, which the plaintiffs contend was falsely denied by authorities for years, and implement changes in the use of informants.

"In addition to hiding the informant program from defense counsel, OCDA and OCSD have gone to great lengths to convince the public and the courts that there is no informant program; that the few informants the agencies have worked with always operated within the confines of the law; and that OCDA attorneys at all times properly disclosed information about these informants. None of this is true," the lawsuit alleges.

"When the informant program and its built-in constitutional abuses first came to light in Dekraai, the OCSD and OCDA did not acknowledge any error. Instead, the agencies began a multi-year fight to keep the informant program intact, a fight in which OCSD and OCDA repeatedly, and knowingly, misled the court, the public, and defense counsel," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit contends the abuse of informants goes back three decades, and notes that the Fourth District Court of Appeal found the abuses were "systemic."

ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme said the organization has no beef with the use of informants as a policy, but he said informants have "enormous reliability problems" because "they will do whatever they can to get out" of jail.

He said appointing a monitor would ensure informants are not abused in the jail.

Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed by Dekraai, said he was "glad" the ACLU was filing suit. He said District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens "are the law, so they should be held accountable like anyone else."

Wilson said the informant scandal "put me through four-and-a-half years of court proceedings I didn't need to go through, and that was only due to their negligence and cheating."

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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