Justice Department Finds Civil Rights Violations by Orange County, California, District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department in Use of Jailhouse Informants
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced today, based upon a thorough investigation focused on custodial informant activity from 2007 through 2016, that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department operated a custodial informant program that systematically violated criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.
Specifically, the department found reasonable cause to believe that Orange County prosecutors and Sheriff deputies violated the Sixth Amendment by using jailhouse informants to elicit incriminating statements from people who had been arrested, after those individuals had been charged with a crime. The department also found that Orange County prosecutors violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence about those custodial informants to criminal defendants. The department believes that OCDA and OCSD stopped using informants as agents of law enforcement to obtain statements from charged defendants in the Orange County Jail in 2016.
The Justice Department provided a comprehensive, written report of its investigative findings to the Orange County District Attorney and Sheriff. The report explicitly acknowledges the reforms that the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department have implemented already, and identifies the additional remedial measures that the department believes are necessary to fully address its findings.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. “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.”
The evidence uncovered by the department reveals that custodial informants in the Orange County Jail system acted as agents of law enforcement to elicit incriminating statements from defendants represented by counsel, and that for years Orange County Sheriff deputies maintained and concealed systems to track, manage, and reward those custodial informants. The evidence also reveals that Orange County prosecutors failed to seek out and disclose exculpatory information regarding custodial informants to defense counsel.
The department opened this investigation in 2016. The department reviewed thousands of pages of documents, conducted numerous site visits and interviewed dozens of witnesses, including Orange County prosecutors. The department also monitored developments in criminal cases, including those that culminated recently. Orange County officials cooperated throughout the investigation.
The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., conducted the investigation pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law. The statute allows the department to remedy such misconduct through civil litigation.
The Special Litigation Section will be contacting members of the Orange County community for input on reforms to address the department’s findings. Individuals may also submit recommendations by email at Community.OrangeCountyCA@usdoj.gov.
Information specific to the Civil Rights Division’s Police Reform Work can be found here: https://www.justice.gov/crt/file/922421/download.