(CN) — Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer touted reforms he’s implemented while in office as families of victims of the area’s worst mass shooting called for his resignation and after a California appeals court revived a lawsuit seeking to end the controversial jailhouse informant program Spitzer oversees.
Southern California’s Fourth Appellate District on Wednesday reversed an earlier dismissal of a lawsuit by Orange County residents who claim a jailhouse informant program operated by the DA and county sheriff’s department has eroded their faith in the criminal legal system’s ability to deliver justice.
Residents want a judge to end a program that coerces confessions and other information from incarcerated people by way of threats and violence from informants who are collaborating with the DA and sheriff.
The information, some of it containing exonerating details, was hidden from defense attorneys later presented by prosecutors as fact during at least 140 criminal proceedings in Orange County Superior Court, the lawsuit said.
The scandal resulted in new trials or new sentences in several high-profile cases and derailed the county’s prosecution of the area’s deadliest mass murderer — Scott Dekraai, who massacred eight people at a hair salon in Seal Beach, California, in 2011.
Associate Justice Raymond Ikola wrote in the court’s opinion that residents have standing to pursue their claims because the informant program represents a “flagrant disregard of the government’s constitutional duties and limitations.”
Ikola also rejected the county’s claims that the case would impede any pending criminal prosecutions and interfere with law enforcement duties, writing in the opinion that the complaint cannot request any orders in active criminal cases.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said in an emailed statement to Courthouse News on Wednesday the agency is reviewing the ruling with county counsel and will determine its next steps at a later time.
Somil Trivedi, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the Orange County residents in the case, said in an interview Thursday plaintiffs were pleased the court rejected the county’s arguments.
“The court found essentially that they were not above the law,” Trivedi told Courthouse News. “We feel vindicated. The ruling is a total victory.”
Edds also said in the statement Spitzer has implemented a host of reforms when he took office, including on the jailhouse informant program.
“He adopted a new jailhouse informant manual that strictly governs the use of jailhouse informants, including the provision that a jailhouse informant cannot be used without the express consent of the District Attorney,” the statement said.
But Trivedi said the reforms are not enough to convince county residents that they should trust Spitzer to ensure the program is operating legally, or even that the program should continue to exist.
“I don't think we should feel comforted that he's citing reforms whereby he's the final arbiter of whether his office is using informants legally,” Trivedi said. “In a broader context, Orange County law enforcement does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
Trivedi noted that on top of the jailhouse snitch scandal, residents’ faith in law enforcement corroded further after Spitzer chided Sheriff Don Barnes last year for his failure to inform him about evidence-booking misconduct by officers.
In November 2019, county officials announced that a probe of the sheriff’s department found more than a dozen officers failed to book evidence according to policy, and in some cases failed to book evidence when they claimed to do so, a practice Spitzer said jeopardized criminal cases on his docket.
“These are further reasons why we need accountability from this case and from a judge rather than trust that [Orange County officials] will implement reforms,” Trivedi said.