Crime & Justice

Feds launch investigation of OC district attorney, sheriff's offices

File: Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers who were facing charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, who died after a violent 2011 confrontation with the then officers.
File: Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers who were facing charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, who died after a violent 2011 confrontation with the then officers.
Joshua Sudock/Pool Photo

The Justice Department said Thursday it has launched a civil investigation of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

The DA’s office had been under scrutiny for allegedly using jailhouse informants to elicit incriminating statements from inmates. Questions over the use of informants led to DA Tony Rackauckas and his office being removed from the high-profile trial of Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty last year to killing eight people at the Salon Meritage hair boutique in 2011.

Obtaining incriminating statements from inmates who had been charged and were represented by counsel would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment, the DOJ said.

“A systematic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a written statement. “Our investigation will examine the facts and evidence to determine whether the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department engaged in a pattern or practice of violating these rights.”

The investigation is also looking into whether the DA's Office systematically violated defendants' 14th Amendment due process rights by failing to disclose evidence — in particular promises to informants of lenience that would have undermined their credibility at trial, according to the DOJ.

The DOJ’s announcement comes just a few weeks after the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the decision to remove the DA’s office from the Dekraai trial, largely because of concerns over the use of jailhouse informants. Informants were managed by the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail, but often provided information to prosecutors in the DA’s office.

“The record before us demonstrates that from the outset, the OCDA [Orange County District Attorney] failed in its duty as the primary county prosecutor to supervise its prosecution team, specifically the OCSD [Orange County Sheriff’s Department], and ensure its prosecutors and its law enforcement team complied with its constitutional and statutory obligations,” the appeals court decision read.

In early December, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals released portions of secret jailhouse logs that tracked informants’ activities around the Orange County Jail. The logs offer details about how deputies used informants and protected them, including having drugs brought into jail to maintain the cover of one informant who court documents show provided information on several dozen cases.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, said he hoped the DOJ investigation would reveal the full scope of potential misconduct regarding the use of informants.

“We don’t know how many people have been wrongly convicted because of the use of jailhouse informants,” said Chemerinsky, who co-authored a letter last year requesting a DOJ investigation. “My hope is that this will find the solution for very serious violations of constitutional rights.”

Orange County DA Rackauckas also requested a review of his office's policies and practices by the Justice Department earlier this year and his office said in a statement Thursday that it would fully cooperate but expected that no wrongdoing would be found.

“The OCDA believes at the conclusion of USDOJ Civil Rights Division's review, they will conclude that the OCDA did not engage in systematic or intentional violation of civil rights of any inmate and no innocent person was wrongfully convicted,” the statement read.

U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker emphasized the significance of Rackauckas’ support for the investigation. “I think that’s a very good sign of cooperation and that we have a joint mission here of insuring fairness in the justice system,” Decker said Thursday.

An internal report from the DA’s office released in January blamed the informant controversy on a “lack of oversight” and a “failure in leadership.”

Rackauckas headed the committee that produced that report, and the DOJ said he has provided unfettered access to his office to review its informant policies and practices. Rackauckas also requested a review of his office's policies and practices by the Justice Department.

“We are confident that this investigation, and the cooperation being offered by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, will help restore public confidence in the integrity of the Orange County criminal justice system,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in the statement.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens responded to the investigation in a statement.

"I welcome this review and investigation and will cooperate fully," Hutchens stated. "It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary and that upholds its duty to the inmates, our staff and the people of Orange County."

On Dec. 10, some family members of victims of the Seal Beach salon shooting held a news conference to call for a conclusion to Dekraai’s trial. Some, recognizing serious flaws in the case brought out by the informant scandal, called for dropping pursuit of the death penalty for Dekraai and instead accepting a sentence of life in prison.

This story has been updated.