An appeal was filed Monday of the dismissal of a taxpayers’ lawsuit against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office regarding the so-called snitch scandal involving the use of confidential informants in the county’s jails.
The American Civil Liberties Union-led lawsuit, whose plaintiffs includes a relative of two victims of mass killer Scott Dekraai, was filed in April of last year, but was tossed out in February by an Orange County Superior Court judge who ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. Orange County Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders also raised concerns about separation of powers issues.
“The law is clear that none of the Superior Court’s concerns — plaintiff’s requested prayer for relief, the potential scope of discovery in the case, the alleged availability of relief in underlying criminal cases, and prosecutorial discretion — is an appropriate basis for demurrer,” the ACLU’s attorneys argue in the appeal. “And the Superior Court’s vague concern that taxpayer standing would impinge on prosecutorial discretion was unfounded, as defendants have no discretion to violate the law.”
In its suit, the ACLU sought a monitor to oversee sweeping changes in the use of informants — a move that typically arises from civil actions filed against law enforcement agencies by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice announced in December 2016 that it had opened a civil “pattern or practice” investigation into the county’s use of jailhouse informants, and that probe is ongoing. District Attorney Todd Spitzer has criticized his predecessor Tony Rackauckas for the way he handled the informant scandal and said he is trying to negotiate a deal to end the probe.
The snitch scandal erupted in 2014 when Dekraai’s attorneys argued a snitch was placed next to their client to elicit damning evidence against the former tugboat captain, who ultimately pleaded guilty to gunning down his ex-wife and seven other people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in October 2011. He was sentenced in September 2017 to life in prison without the possibility of parole after an Orange County Superior Court judge took the death penalty away as an option for prosecutors based on the claims of misconduct. The appellate court affirmed that ruling in November 2016.
The ACLU lawsuit alleges three decades of systemic corruption in the use of informants, citing not only the Dekraai case but the capital case against Daniel Wozniak, which Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders, also worked on.
As Sanders did in his representation of Dekraai and Wozniak, the ACLU attorneys claim sheriff’s deputies would place snitches in disciplinary isolation with targets of investigations to coerce confessions or inculpatory statements that would be used against them at trial. That is illegal if a defendant is represented by an attorney at the time.
The ACLU attorneys argue that the constitutional abuses continue and cited one of Sanders’ current cases.
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