Criminal Justice

Suit seeks end of jailhouse informant program, disclosure to convicted inmates

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday contends that the sheriff and district attorney of Orange County, California, operate a secret jailhouse informant program that violates state law and inmates’ constitutional rights.

The suit seeks an injunction to end the program, the disclosure of informant information to people who may have claims to habeas relief, and the appointment of a monitor to ensure compliance.

The suit says the program has been in place for more than 30 years, but it didn’t come to light until its exposure in a criminal case four years ago. The informants are placed close to criminal defendants, and are rewarded for their information, according to the suit, filed in superior court in Orange County.

“Informants were paid handsomely—hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases—and often given time off their own sentences in exchange for unlawfully collecting this information,” according to the suit.

The suit alleges that Orange County Sheriff’s Department personnel have lied under oath to conceal the arrangement, and the county district attorney’s office has suppressed evidence that could expose constitutional violations. Nor is there any indication that officials intend to halt the abuses, the suit says.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, according to an ACLU press release. Plaintiffs include three Orange County residents and a group called People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement (PEOPLE).

One of the plaintiffs is Bethany Webb, the sister of a woman killed along with seven other people in a 2011 beauty salon shooting by Scott Dekraai. Dekraai’s public defender had uncovered evidence about the jailhouse informant program, spurring the judge to throw the DA off the case. The presiding judge sentenced Dekraai to eight life terms last September, and said he would have imposed the death penalty if there had been no misconduct, the Orange County Register had reported.

The suit claims:

• Informants working for the government questioned inmates in violation of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

• Informants used threats and coercion to elicit information in violation of the due process clause. Some informants allegedly told the inmates’ they were on a hit list to be assaulted or killed, and they had to confess to avoid getting hurt.

• Prosecutors failed to disclose the program in violation of due process obligations to reveal favorable evidence.

The suit also claims the failures also violated state statutes and the state constitution.

The case is PEOPLE v. Rackauckas.

Related article:

ABA Journal: “Secret Snitches: California case uncovers long-standing practice of planting jailhouse informants”

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