Vast operation of paid jailhouse informants has tainted convictions for more than thirty years
SANTA ANA — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP today filed a lawsuit against Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, whose departments conducted a secret jailhouse informant operation in violation of the U.S. Constitution, California Constitution, and California state laws.
For more than thirty years, the departments have recruited and placed informants in jail cells with defendants, paying and rewarding informants with sentence reductions for extracting incriminating information from the defendants without their lawyers present. Some informants use threats of violence, including threats of murder, to coerce confessions and other information.
"By running this massive, underground jailhouse informant scheme, the district attorney's office and the sheriff's department are cheating Orange County out of justice," said Brendan Hamme, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. "They have won countless convictions based on unreliable information — the results of jailhouse informants' coercion of defendants — that they passed off in court as solid, sound, and legal. Hiding the facts of the coercion from the defense is just one of the many ways they broke the law and endangered justice."
The scheme has existed at least since the 1980s, and it was first exposed in a criminal case four years ago. Since then, the defendants in at least 18 cases in Orange County have shown that the departments' jailhouse informants were illegally involved in their cases and won sentence reductions or dismissals. The district attorney's office and sheriff's department have consistently denied the existence of the jailhouse operation, sometimes under oath.
"District attorney's offices and sheriff's departments have the responsibility to pursue justice and uphold the law. Orange County's jailhouse informant scam does the opposite, and we're suing to end it," said Somil Trivedi, Staff Attorney with the ACLU. "We must hold the departments accountable for more than three decades of secrets and lies that continue to undermine the justice system in Orange County."
The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, details several cases in which illegal jailhouse informants were involved, including that of Luis Vega. Vega was 14 when he was arrested in 2009 for attempted murder. Two jail informants paid by the district attorney's office and sheriff's department produced information without coercion that showed Vega was innocent. By law, the departments were required to relay this information to Vega and his attorney, but they did not, due to the risk of exposing the entire illegal program. Vega remained in prison for nearly two years.
A named plaintiff in the lawsuit filed today, People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement (P.E.O.P.L.E.), is a nonprofit association based in Orange County.
"Both agencies' misconduct has devastated the Orange County community and led to a complete loss of faith in their ability to deliver justice," Tina Jackson, a member of P.E.O.P.L.E. who also is a named plaintiff, said. "They claim to represent the people of Orange County, but we are here to say that, as long as they're breaking the law, they don't represent us."
"The scope and duration of Orange County's illegal informant program is breathtaking," said Jacob Kreilkamp, a partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. "The defendants' efforts to deny its existence — and, when forced to confront reality, to minimize and excuse it — make it clear that this lawsuit is necessary to restore integrity to Orange County's criminal justice system."
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — has launched a new multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors who break the law are held accountable for fueling mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. Today's lawsuit joins Singleton v. Cannizzaro, filed in January by the ACLU and co-counsel over misconduct by the Orleans Parish district attorney, such as issuing fake subpoenas to coerce witnesses into submitting to interrogations.
See a video about the Orange County lawsuit at: youtu.be/mPXEz0WJbRM
Read the lawsuit at: aclusocal.org/people-v-rackauckas
For more information:
ACLU of Southern California
ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice
Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP