Justice Department Finally Opens Investigation of Orange County Snitch Scandal

The Orange County district attorney and sheriff have been at the center of a nearly four-year-old scandal involving the illegal use of jailhouse informants.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta speaks to reporters at a press conference on December 4, 2014. Photo: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

More than a year after the initial request for intervention was made, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on December 15 announced that it would initiate an investigation of the still unfolding jailhouse snitch scandal that has embroiled Orange County, California.

“A systemic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a press release.

As The Intercept has reported, the Orange County district attorney’s office along with the Orange County sheriff have been at the center of a nearly four-year-old scandal involving the illegal use of jailhouse informants — violating their targets’ Sixth Amendment rights — and allegations that prosecutors withheld evidence about their shenanigans from defense attorneys, violating their clients’ due process rights.

Both District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have been insistent over the years that there is nothing wrong with the county’s criminal justice system — despite still mounting evidence that deputies crafted illegal schemes to coerce confessions out of high-profile inmates and lied about their activities while under oath, and that prosecutors were complicit in and covered up some of the wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, in a statement posted to Facebook, Hutchens welcomed the review: “It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary and that upholds its duty to the inmates, our staff and the people of Orange County.”

Although the DOJ credited Rackauckas for requesting the inquiry, he was clearly reluctant and did so only after the handpicked group of lawyers he asked to review the situation issued a scathing report recommending an outside investigation, and several months after a group of 30 distinguished lawyers and interested parties signed on to a letter urging DOJ intervention.

Rackauckas’ statement regarding the review was perfunctory, though he made sure to remind readers that it was he who asked the feds to make their inquiry. The office is “grateful” for the response, reads the press release. And he reiterated the belief that no one in his office did anything wrong — at least not on purpose: “The OCDA believes at the conclusion of USDOJ Civil Rights Division review, they will conclude that the OCDA did not engage in systematic or intentional violation of civil rights of any inmate and no innocent person was wrongfully convicted.”

The DOJ’s planned practice-or-pattern review of the Orange County criminal justice system will seek to ferret out persistent patterns of misconduct and to determine whether systemic deficiencies “contribute to the conduct or enable it to persist.” If misconduct is found, the agency will determine specific remedies needed to fix the issues — usually as part of a negotiated agreement that becomes a federal court order. If the local law enforcement agencies decline to work with the feds to enact the remedies, the DOJ can initiate a civil lawsuit to secure the reforms.

Orange County’s snitch scandal was uncovered by public defender Scott Sanders while working on two high-profile death penalty cases, including one involving Scott Dekraai, responsible for the county’s worst-ever mass shooting. The evidence of misconduct uncovered by Sanders led a local judge, after months of hearings, to conclude that the district attorney’s office should be recused from handling the Dekraai case. The state attorney general sought to overturn that decision, but was shot down in a blistering appellate court opinion delivered in late November.

“The Court of Appeal stated that the ‘magnitude of the systemic problems [in OCDA and OCSD] cannot be overlooked,’” Sanders wrote in an email to The Intercept. “It is hoped that the Justice Department’s probe will help reform the system so that all Orange County residents will receive the constitutional protections to which they are entitled.”

Top photo:Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta speaks to reporters at a press conference on December 4, 2014.

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