Crime & Justice

ACLU sues Orange County Sheriff and DA over jailhouse snitch scandal

File: Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in a 2014 trial. The ACLU is suing Rackauckas and OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens for their departments' alleged misuse of jailhouse informants and failure to turn over evidence to criminal defendants.
File: Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in a 2014 trial. The ACLU is suing Rackauckas and OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens for their departments' alleged misuse of jailhouse informants and failure to turn over evidence to criminal defendants.
Joshua Sudock/Pool Photo

The ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Orange County's district attorney and sheriff for allegedly violating the rights of criminal defendants by misusing jailhouse informants to secure convictions.

The back story

The unlawful use of informants, or “snitches,” has led to sentences being overturned or lessened in more than a dozen cases, most notably in that of mass murderer Scott Dekraai.

Dekraai had confessed to killing eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011, but his sentencing was delayed for years as evidence mounted that sheriff’s deputies had improperly used a jailhouse informant to solicit information from Dekraai, and prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to the defense. Dekraai was sentenced last year to life in prison, rather than death, which prosecutors had sought. 

What does the ACLU want?

The civil rights group seeks a permanent injunction requiring the Sheriff’s Department and OCDA to create and maintain a comprehensive database of information on the use of jailhouse informants.

The ACLU also wants a judge to force OC law enforcement to notify any individuals whose criminal defense cases may have been compromised by the illegal use of informants so that they can decide whether to seek a remedy. 

What's at stake?

OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is up for re-election this year. OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is retiring and has endorsed her second-in-command, Undersheriff Don Barnes, to replace her. 

The ACLU alleges in its lawsuit that Rackauckas and Hutchens “have needlessly compromised meritorious prosecutions and denied individuals who are innocent until proven guilty the evidence needed to defend themselves.” 

Rackauckas defended his office's legal use of informants in a statement Wednesday morning, saying it "will continue to lawfully use all evidence lawfully developed by local law enforcement and continue on our Mission, which is 'to enhance public safety and welfare and create a sense of security in the community through the vigorous enforcement of criminal and civil laws in a just, honest, efficient, and ethical manner.'"

He also said his office has not yet been served with the suit. 

Who else has looked into the controversy?

The ACLU lawsuit follows open investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Attorney General’s office into the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County and potential violation of defendants' constitutional rights. 

An Orange County Grand Jury concluded last year that the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office had not conspired to illegally use jailhouse informants, and that the misuse of snitches was "the work of a few rogue deputies."

Read the complaint