SACRAMENTO - Today, a bill to close a significant loophole in existing law regarding jailhouse informants passed unanimously out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee. Assembly Bill 359, by Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), comes in the wake of controversy in Orange County over use of jailhouse informants and revelations that two informants were paid over $335,000 in cash payments from Orange County and other jurisdictions in California.
“The integrity of our criminal justice system is crumbling and one contributing factor is California’s long history of unethical and illegal use of jailhouse informants, like we are seeing play out in Orange County,” said Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer. “This bill is a small but significant step to make sure our criminal justice system does what it is intended to do, which is deliver on the promise of justice for all.”
Justices advocates from the ACLU of California, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project argue that the unregulated and hidden use of jailhouse informants greatly contributes to three injustices: wrongful convictions, delayed justice for victims, and erosion of public trust in the system.
“Promises and benefits offered by the state, including leniency in sentencing, cash payments and other lavish gifts create a strong incentive for jailhouse informants to lie,” said Alex Simpson, Associate Director of the California Innocence Project. “Like other types of unreliable evidence, jailhouse informant testimony can lead to innocent people going to prison while the real perpetrators remain at large.”
AB 359 carries out the legislature’s intent to place reasonable restrictions on all incentives provided to jailhouse informants. The bill extends a monetary cap on payments provided to jailhouse informants in exchange for their testimony to also apply to all benefits given to jailhouse informants for their participation in intelligence gathering. In addition, the bill expands transparency safeguards by requiring law enforcement to report to the District Attorney all incentives provided to jailhouse informants.
“By establishing important and commonsense safeguards, AB 359 seeks to mitigate the possibility of miscarriages of justice, while still allowing our law enforcement agencies the tools they need to investigate criminal cases,” said Cris Lamb, President of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office following several high-profile cases where undisclosed informants were used to covertly obtain evidence. This investigation uncovered a secret network of informants used by both the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
This controversy, referred to as the “snitch scandal” by media across the nation, involved the use of two informants who received over $335,000 in cash payments between 2011 and 2015 for providing information for cases in Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, Riverside and San Bernardino. In addition to these lavish payments, the two informants also received favorable consideration in their own criminal cases, special housing units with a couch, television, gaming console, microwave, and refrigerator, fast food meals, cigarettes, laptops, phone cards, and permission to cover lights and surveillance cameras for privacy and comfort.
“It is critical California implement laws that ensure fair justice. Approving the reforms in AB 359 is an important step in the right direction to increasing public trust in the system,” said Melissa O’Connell, Attorney and Policy Liaison for the Northern California Innocence Project.