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DOJ: Unlawful Snitching Program Run by the Orange County, California, DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department Compromised Unknown Number of Convictions

by Jo Ellen Nott

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued a bombshell report on October 13, 2022, revealing that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department “systematically violated criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law” by using jailhouse informers to unlawfully obtain evidence for nine years.

According to the report, “The evidence uncovered by the department reveals that custodial informants in the Orange County Jail system acted as agents of law enforcement to elicit incriminating statements from defendants represented by counsel, and that for years Orange County Sheriff’s deputies maintained and concealed systems to track, manage, and reward those custodial informants. The evidence also reveals that “Orange County prosecutors failed to seek out and disclose exculpatory information regarding custodial informants to defense counsel.”

California sheriff’s deputies operated the snitch program by putting informants and defendants together in isolation for long periods or by housing informants and defendants in cells connected by plumbing pipes or air vents through which they could talk confidentially and with ease. The program operated from 2007 to 2016 under former District AttorneyTony Rackauckas, a top prosecutor from that period.

As payback for the illegally obtained information, snitches received privileges such as increased access to a television room and use of phones. The DOJ report also said defense attorneys were not informed about how compromised confessions were obtained. Legal analyst Lou Shapiro warned that any prisoner who is still in custody stemming from a case that involved illegal snitching will file a motion for a new trial.

The DOJ started investigating the snitch operation in 2016 after learning that Orange County prosecutors engaged in misconduct in the case of mass murderer Scott Dekraai. The defendant murdered his ex-wife and seven others in a hair salon in 2011 over a bitter custody battle. Dekraai was not sentenced to death after the district attorney learned that prosecutors used a longtime snitch to obtain a “tainted” confession from Dekraai.

The ensuing scandal would derail Dekraai’s case, and the court recused the Orange County DA from prosecuting the case. Dekraai renewed a motion to dismiss his death penalty sentence in 2017 on the grounds that the prosecution’s misconduct was outrageous. The court sided with Dekraai and sentenced him to eight consecutive life sentences without parole instead of death.

Legal experts said the report serves as a strong warning to other policing agencies across the country. Federal officials recommended providing more training, regularly auditing informant files, and implementing policies to ensure that all information is given to the defense.

The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is working with members of the Orange County community to establish and enact reforms to address the department’s findings. 

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, LA Times, NY Post

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