Orange County Sheriff's cruiser
Orange Count Sheriff's cruiser. photo by John Schrieber

Over the course of a decade, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department “systematically” violated the rights of criminal defendants through the use of jailhouse informants to elicit incriminating statements from inmates awaiting trial, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded Thursday.

Federal prosecutors said the use of jailhouse snitches violated inmates’ Sixth and 14th Amendment rights to legal representation and due process of law. The DOJ noted in its announcement that both agencies have already implemented changes and taken remedial steps, and stepped using informants in the Orange County Jail in 2016.

“All persons who are accused of a crime are guaranteed basic constitutional protections that are intended to ensure fairness in criminal proceedings and due process of law,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. “Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have an obligation to uphold these rights in their fight against crime and in their pursuit of justice, including in the way that they use custodial informants against criminal defendants.

“The failure to protect these basic constitutional guarantees not only deprives individual defendants of their rights, it undermines the public’s confidence in the fundamental fairness of criminal justice systems across the county.”

According to the long-awaited report by the DOJ — which began its investigation in 2016 — jailhouse informants were used beginning in at least 2007, and they essentially “acted as agents of law enforcement to elicit incriminating statements from defendants represented by counsel,” according to a DOJ statement.

Sheriff’s deputies then “maintained and concealed systems to track, manage and reward those custodial informants,” according to the DOJ. “The evidence also reveals that Orange County prosecutors failed to seek out and disclose exculpatory information regarding custodial informants to defense counsel.”

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