SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Orange County, California, law enforcement officials ran a “secret jailhouse informant operation” in violation of state and federal laws, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 40-page complaint, filed in Orange County Superior Court, accuses the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department of recruiting and placing informants in jail cells across the county, paying and rewarding them with sentence reductions for “extracting incriminating information” without lawyers present. Some informants used threats of violence, including threats of murder, to coerce confessions and other information from people housed in the jail, according to the complaint.
The ACLU says the operation has been in place for more than 30 years, though current DA Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens are the only named defendants.
In a statement, Rackauckas said the plaintiffs are “against” his office’s core work of “enjoining gang members from terrorizing neighborhoods, keeping sexually violent predators civilly committed, and pursuing the death penalty against the worst of the worst murderers.”
He said the use of informants has been “consistently upheld by the United States Supreme Court,” and cited a case from 1967 in which the Supreme Court upheld a “warrantless drug arrest” based on probable cause provided by an undercover informant.
Tina Jackson, a member of community group People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement and a plaintiff in the case, said “both agencies’ misconduct has devastated the Orange County community and led to a complete loss of faith in their ability to deliver justice.”
Jackson said if the departments are in violation of the law “they don’t represent” her community.
Somil Trivedi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the informant program has damaged the good-faith belief the agencies would “pursue justice and uphold the law.”
The ACLU, which represents the community group along with law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, said the secret operation violates the U.S. and California Constitution as well as state laws.
“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.
Hamme said the district attorney’s office has won “countless convictions based on unreliable information” obtained from jailhouse informants who gave information through “coercion.”
The information from informants was submitted as court evidence “as solid, sound, and legal,” Hamme said.
“Hiding the facts of the coercion from the defense is just one of the many ways they broke the law and endangered justice,” he said.
The scheme has existed at least since the 1980s and was first exposed four years ago in a criminal case, according to the ACLU. Since then, defendants in at least 18 cases have shown the departments’ jailhouse informants were illegally involved in their cases and won sentence reductions or dismissals.
In one case detailed in the lawsuit, informants provided information that would have exonerated Luis Vega, a 14-year-old arrested on an attempted murder charge. By law, the DA’s office and sheriff’s department were required to relay this information to Vega and his attorney but didn’t for fear of exposing the entire illegal informant program. Vega, an innocent child, remained in prison for nearly two years, the lawsuit says.
Jacob Kreilkamp, an attorney with Munger, Tolles & Olson, called the “scope and duration” of the informant program “breathtaking.”
“The [departments’] efforts to deny [the program’s] 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,” Kreilkamp said.
The ACLU lawsuit is part of their Campaign for Smart Justice, which seeks to hold prosecutors in violation of the law “accountable for fueling mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
On Twitter, the sheriff’s department said it “has cooperated fully with the CA Attorney General and Department of Justice investigations into the use of informants in the OC Jail.
“Regarding the lawsuit filed today by the ACLU, the OCSD does not comment on pending litigation.”
The plaintiffs want a judge to find the informant scheme in violation of state and federal law and unconstitutional, and for it to be permanently banned. They also want a court-appointed monitor to oversee the dismantling of the program.