(CN) — Orange County’s district attorney and sheriff must face a lawsuit seeking to end a jailhouse informant program in operation for decades after a California appeals court panel unanimously ruled Wednesday that a group of county residents have sufficient taxpayer and public interest standing to bring their claims.
Three Orange County residents and community group People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement said in their 2018 lawsuit that the agencies’ snitch program eroded their Southern California community’s faith in the criminal legal system’s ability to deliver justice.
For at least 30 years, the agencies have operated a clandestine program in county jails that used confidential informants to coerce confessions and other information from incarcerated people, the lawsuit said, adding that informants were paid or rewarded with sentence reductions.
The information extracted by informants — who used threats of violence and murder to glean details from targets — was later presented as fact during at least 140 criminal proceedings in Orange County Superior Court, the lawsuit said.
In one case detailed in the lawsuit, informants culled details 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 their informant program. Vega remained in prison for nearly two years.
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.
Tony Rackauckas — the district attorney at the time who was a named defendant in the suit — said in a statement in response to the lawsuit that the program was legal and necessary for prosecuting dangerous criminals.
County attorneys representing Rackauckas, whom plaintiffs said was actively concealing the existence of the program, argued the case could not go forward since it would interfere with ongoing criminal prosecutions.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders agreed and dismissed the complaint in 2019, ruling that residents lacked standing to bring the suit as taxpayers or in the public interest.
On appeal, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson argued plaintiffs’ tax dollars were unjustly bankrolling an illegal program that constitutes “waste and illegal expenditures of public funds” during the course of official duties.
“In holding that plaintiffs lacked standing as taxpayers and in the public interest, the superior court told Orange County residents that they are entirely unable to challenge Defendants’ unconstitutional and illegal actions,” plaintiffs’ attorneys said in their appeal.
The argument was compelling enough for Associate Justice Raymond J. Ikola of Southern California’s Fourth Appellate District, who on Wednesday reversed Sanders’ judgment and ruled plaintiffs have standing to pursue their claims for a writ of mandate.
“The operative complaint describes a surveillance program in flagrant disregard of the government’s constitutional duties and limitations,” Ikola wrote in the 22-page published opinion. “We would be hard pressed to think of a more outrageous constitutional violation. Plainly, the constitutional rights the CI program is alleged to have violated — the rights to due process and the assistance of counsel, among others — are public rights that every citizen has an interest in upholding.”
Plaintiffs’ complaint meets the burden of stating a cause of action since the county’s confidential informant program is ongoing and is not barred by the statute of limitations for the same reason, Ikola found.
The ACLU did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling by press time.
Ikola also rejected the county’s claims that the case would impede any pending criminal cases, writing in the opinion that the complaint cannot request any orders in active criminal cases.
“Instead, as we interpret the complaint, it seeks orders to restrain ongoing programs and policies that are systematically violating defendants’ constitutional rights,” Ikola wrote. “The existence of policies and programs that systematically violate constitutional rights may be attacked without directly interfering in any particular criminal proceeding.”
Ikola also ordered Orange County to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees stemming from the appeal.
A spokesperson for current Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Acting Presiding Justice Richard D. Fybel and Associate Justice David A. Thompson rounded out the panel and joined in concurrence.