ACLU to sue Calif. DA, sheriff over misuse of jailhouse informants

The suit marks the latest event in a long-running scandal that has rocked the county's criminal justice system

By Adam Elmahrek
Los Angeles Times

SANTA ANA, Calif. — The Orange County jailhouse informant scandal has upended criminal cases and led to state and federal investigations into how prosecutors and jailers used snitches to obtain confessions from other inmates.

Now the scandal is heading to civil court.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it is suing the district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department, claiming that the two law enforcement agencies have engaged in an elaborate scheme to violate defendants' constitutional rights through a secret network of jailhouse informants.

The lawsuit, expected to be filed early Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court, accuses prosecutors and sheriff's officials of deploying "professional" informants for decades, using databases and a special log to track their movements and interactions in the jails. The complaint also claims that the district attorney's office illegally withheld information about the informants from defense attorneys.

The suit marks the latest event in a long-running scandal that has rocked the county's criminal justice system. At least 19 criminal cases have seen sentences reduced or charges dismissed altogether, according to the ACLU.

Last year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals blocked prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against the man who murdered eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011, ruling that the county's mishandling of information regarding informants would prevent a fair trial. Goethals had previously said he was "satisfied beyond any doubt" that the Sheriff's Department had a program that placed informants next to inmates with the aim of coaxing confessions out of them.

The law prohibits the government from deliberately using an informant to secretly elicit incriminating statements from a defendant who has been formally charged and so has the right to have an attorney be present for any questioning.

Among the plaintiffs in the ACLU's suit is Bethany Webb, whose sister Laura Webb-Elody was killed in the salon massacre, Orange County's deadliest mass shooting.

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have denied that the misuse of jailhouse informants in their agencies was systemic, blaming the scandal on a false narrative blown out of proportion by the media and a few deputies who broke the rules. Their argument was bolstered when the Orange County grand jury issued a report concluding there was no formal informant program, only a handful of "rogue" deputies.

Less than two weeks later, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a ruling vacating the conviction of a man accused of murdering a pregnant woman, based on prosecutors' failure to disclose details about a jailhouse informant at trial.

But the exact number of cases "tainted" by the snitch scandal remains unclear.

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."

©2018 the Los Angeles Times

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