Justice: Orange County misused jail snitches, violated inmate rights

The U.S. Justice Department said Thursday that the sheriff’s department and prosecutors in Orange County ran an extensive jailhouse informant program for years that violated the rights of criminal defendants.

The federal agency, which began investigating the allegations in 2016, issued a lengthy report detailing Orange County authorities’ use of the informants from 2007 to 2016 and their failure to release information, as required by law, about incriminating statements gathered by the snitches to lawyers for the accused.

The report said the district attorney’s office had failed to conduct a full probe of the scandal that rocked the county of 3 million people and said it should "establish an independent body to conduct a more comprehensive review of past prosecutions involving custodial informants."

Orange County, which saw a number of criminal cases upended once the allegations came to light, stopped using the informants in 2016, the report said.

"The failure to protect these basic constitutional guarantees not only deprives individual defendants of their rights, it undermines the public’s confidence in the fundamental fairness of criminal justice systems across the county," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.

The report comes years after the allegations of prosecutorial conduct arose in the case of a man who killed eight people in a 2011 shooting in a hair salon.

Scott Dekraai pleaded guilty to the murders but was spared the death penalty over authorities’ use of an informant to cull information from him while he was represented by a lawyer — which was unearthed when his attorney flagged that the snitch had also been involved in another high-profile case.

In a separate instance, a gang member charged with a 2004 killing took a plea deal and a shorter prison sentence after an earlier conviction was set aside over concerns that prosecutors had failed to share critical evidence.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer released the following statement which read in part, "Throughout this multi-year investigation, I repeatedly asked the DOJ for input on the numerous reforms I have implemented, including the prohibition of utilizing a jailhouse informant without the express consent of the elected District Attorney, and asked for suggestions on additional reforms that the DOJ would like to have in place.

After learning the California Attorney General had abandoned its probe into the OCDA and OCSD and while waiting for the DOJ to conclude its review, I launched my own outside investigation into the informant issue. As a result, I fired a senior assistant district attorney for failing to properly disclose informant information to the defense.  Two other veteran homicide prosecutors resigned or retired while they were under investigation. The report ultimately concluded that they committed intentional negligence in connection with the prosecution of People v. Dekraai.

This report confirms exactly what we already knew – there was a robust jailhouse informant program within the Orange County jail with the intent to elicit incriminating statements from represented defendants in violation of their constitutional rights. Much of this activity was being hid from prosecutors, preventing the proper disclosure of informant information. This is unacceptable."

Authorities can use jailhouse informants but can’t have them deliberately elicit information from defendants once they are represented by lawyers. In addition, prosecutors are required to turn over evidence to defense attorneys that could be seen as favorable to their clients.