For years, some of Orange County’s most powerful figures have sought to downplay accusations that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies were using jailhouse informants in ways that violated the US Constitution.
Then-Dist. Atti. Tony Rackauckas denounced the situation as a “media witch hunt” in 2017, even after the so-called snitch scandal sparked a new trial in a murder case and derailed proceedings against the accused in the worst shooting mass of the county’s history. A civil grand jury investigation somehow came to the conclusion that the whole situation was a “myth”.
Even a years-long investigation by the The California Attorney General’s office ended with a groan: No public account of the scandal has been given and no criminal charges have been filed against sheriff’s deputies who a judge said ‘lied or deliberately withheld physical evidence’ about the informant scandal in court .
But on Thursday, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division confirmed what lawyers, activists and crime victims have long been crying out for: that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office have systematically violated the constitutional rights of defendants for the better part of a decade.
In a scathing 63-page report, federal investigators said the two agencies repeatedly violated defendants’ due process rights from 2007 to 2016, when the sheriff’s department harbored jailhouse informants near inmates of high level to obtain a confession.
In many cases, the inmates had already been charged with the crimes they were being pressured to discuss, making this tactic a clear violation of their 6th Amendment right to have an attorney present.
“The findings of this report represent a critically important development for the county court system. We have been alleging the same civil rights abuses analyzed by the Department of Justice since 2014, and now we finally have a government agency outlining why we were right and how bad conduct was by both agencies,” said Orange County. Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders, who first discovered the scandal.
While it’s not uncommon for jailed informants to offer information to prosecutors or investigators, deputies in the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Handling Unit have built a stable of snitches to throw at defendants charged with serious crimes.
The Justice Department findings come eight years after evidence of the scandal was uncovered during the trial of Scott Dekraai, who slaughtered his ex-wife and seven others in a mass shooting at a Seal Beach saloon in 2011. While Dekraai admitted to carrying out the massacre, investigators feared he was seeking an insanity defense for avoid the death penalty. So they placed an informant, Fernando Perez, in a nearby cell.
Sanders, Dekraai’s attorney, filed a motion seeking more information about Perez’s history of working with law enforcement, setting off a series of events that would require the sheriff’s department to release evidence of his tactic of placing informants near high-level defendants. A total of 21 defendants charged with murder or other serious violent crimes have had their convictions quashed, new trials ordered or sentences reduced as a result of the scandal, according to Sanders.
Rackauckas, the district attorney during the time the misconduct occurred, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sandra Hutchens, the sheriff at the time, died in 2021.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, who served as an undersheriff for much of that time, said the agency has already heavily reformed how it uses informants.
“I look forward to the DOJ reviewing our current policies, processes, and procedures regarding in-custody informants,” he said in a statement. “I am confident that they will find that our current practices have met many of their recommendations and that they expect a prompt and full resolution of this matter.”
The Justice Department report determined that Orange County officials repeatedly violated the 6th Amendment, which grants defendants the right to have an attorney present when questioned by law enforcement. , and the 14th Amendment, which requires prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to a defendant.
At least five prosecutors knew that an informant, Oscar Moriel, was cooperating with the sheriff’s department. But when the informant scheme was exposed during the Dekraai case, prosecutors admitted they “did not properly disclose evidence regarding Moriel in all of the cases he was involved in.”
The report also confirmed that the sheriff’s department created a so-called whistleblower: a unit at the main county jail where law enforcement knew informants were likely to be housed. According to the report, deputies also sometimes used “disciplinary solitary confinement” to round up informants and targets, punishing minor violations with solitary confinement to give informants more time to convince particular defendants.
The snitch scandal has supported county politics for years. Hutchens declined to run for re-election following the controversy. In its successful 2018 campaign, Dist. Atti. Todd Spitzer has frequently attacked Rackauckas for the fiasco on his way to ousting his longtime rival.
Spitzer said Thursday that the report detailed “the very issues I ran over” and validated his efforts to “clean up the public corruption that existed under the previous administration.” He also referenced a report he released after ordering an internal investigation into the scandal in 2020.
But the federal report dismissed Spitzer’s investigation as a cursory examination of five cases affected by the misuse of informants.
Spitzer’s investigation concluded that it was unclear whether prosecutors did anything wrong, according to the federal report.
But the Justice Department said two of the cases went to new trials due to the misuse of informants, and there was ‘reasonable cause’ to believe prosecutors got it wrong. in the other three.
The federal report also revealed that the sheriff’s department hid records for tracking and handling informants in the jail. During the trials, prosecutors concealed the true origin of the information they presented, according to the report.
The fallout from the scandal led then-Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals to remove the district attorney’s office from the Dekraai trial. In the end, Goethals chose to spare Dekraai from a death sentence because he did not believe the defendant could receive a fair trial due to the widespread misconduct of the sheriff’s department.
The federal report acknowledged that both agencies made some reforms in the wake of the scandal. Spitzer and Barnes have policies in place governing the use of informants that were largely non-existent before 2014. Deputies must now obtain permission from the district attorney’s office before using a jailhouse informant.
Spitzer also fired a senior assistant prosecutor for failing to properly disclose information about the use of informants to defense attorneys in a homicide case. Two other veteran homicide prosecutors resigned or retired as they were investigated for their role in the scandal. Three deputies who were under investigation by the state attorney general’s office also resigned in the fallout from the scandal.
Still, the report criticized both agencies for failing to properly reform their practices and made recommendations for further reforms. The report presented 23 sweeping recommendations for both agencies, including formal training for employees.
The report also urged the county to create an independent body to further examine past lawsuits and investigations 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.”
Others worried that the report did not go far enough. Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy, was among Dekraai’s victims, said the Justice Department should have named specific prosecutors and deputies who failed to perform their duties.
“That’s the only thing that’s going to change is naming names and holding people accountable,” Wilson said. “I know Spitzer is sitting in this big chair…and I know Barnes is too, and they’re just laughing at this thing.”