The Orange County jailhouse informant scandal has upended criminal cases and led to state and federal investigations into how prosecutors and jailers used snitches to obtain confessions from other inmates.
Now the scandal is heading to civil court.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department, claiming that the two law enforcement agencies have engaged in an elaborate scheme to violate defendants' constitutional rights through a secret network of jailhouse informants.
The lawsuit, filed early Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court, accuses prosecutors and sheriff's officials of deploying "professional" informants for decades, using databases and a special log to track their movements and interactions in the jails. The complaint claims that the district attorney's office illegally withheld information about the informants from defense attorneys.
The ACLU also claims that informants told defendants they were on a list of targets to be killed by the informants' gang, and that they could only get off the list by confessing to their crime – a tactic known as "greenlighting." The district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department were aware of the death threats but did "nothing to stop this practice," according to the lawsuit.
Informants were paid handsome sums while in jail amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars and given sweetheart deals that allowed the criminals, even convicted killers, to be freed from jail, according to the ACLU.
At a Wednesday morning press conference announcing the lawsuit, ACLU attorneys said the informant program violated the U.S. Constitution and placed Orange County residents in danger.
"Let's think about that – the office you trust to protect you has been breaking the law themselves," said ACLU attorney Somil Trivedi.
In a statement, the district attorney's office defended the legality of using informants and said the ACLU "is against most things the Orange County District Attorney stands for." The statement then cited gang injunctions, the death penalty and the indefinite detention of people convicted of sex crimes known as "civil commitment."
In a Wednesday morning tweet, the Sheriff's Department said it "has cooperated fully with the CA Attorney General and Department of Justice investigations" and that the department "does not comment on pending litigation."
The suit marks the latest event in a long-running scandal that has rocked the county's criminal justice system. At least 18 criminal cases have seen sentences reduced or charges dismissed altogether, according to the ACLU.
Last year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals blocked prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against the man who murdered eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011, ruling that the county's mishandling of information regarding informants would prevent a fair trial. Goethals had previously said he was "satisfied beyond any doubt" that the Sheriff's Department had a program that placed informants next to inmates with the aim of coaxing confessions out of them.
The law prohibits the government from deliberately using an informant to secretly elicit incriminating statements from a defendant who has been formally charged and so has the right to have an attorney be present for any questioning.
Among the plaintiffs in the ACLU's suit is Bethany Webb, whose sister Laura Webb-Elody was killed in the salon massacre, Orange County's deadliest mass shooting.
Webb, who spoke at the press conference along with two other lawsuit plaintiffs, said that what should have been an "open-and-shut case" prosecuting a mass murderer turned into a "six-year nightmare" — an ordeal she blamed on the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office.
Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have denied that the misuse of jailhouse informants in their agencies was systemic, blaming the scandal on a false narrative blown out of proportion by the media and a few deputies who broke the rules. Their argument was bolstered when the Orange County grand jury issued a report concluding there was no formal informant program, only a handful of "rogue" deputies.
Less than two weeks later, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a ruling vacating the conviction of a man accused of murdering a pregnant woman, based on prosecutors' failure to disclose details about a jailhouse informant at trial.
The exact number of cases "tainted" by the snitch scandal remains unclear, according to the lawsuit. The district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department have gone to great lengths to cover up the informant network, according to the suit, even allowing an innocent 14-year-old boy to languish in jail for two years because handing over exonerating evidence to the boy's defense attorney would have exposed the program.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU plans to ask a judge to order authorities to notify every criminal defendant whose case was affected by the use of an informant. The ACLU also wants a court to declare that prosecutors and sheriff's officials violated the rights of defendants and order them to stop the unconstitutional use of informants.
"The Orange County criminal justice system is in disrepair and disrepute," the lawsuit claims. "Public faith in the integrity of the Orange County district attorney's office" and the Sheriff's Department "and in their ability to seek justice has been eviscerated by continuous revelations of systemic misconduct."
11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details from a press conference and statements from the Orange County district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department.