ACLU Charges Illegal Orange County Informant Scheme

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit charging that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in California’s Orange County ran a long-running campaign to get confessions from defendants illegally.

Prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in California’s Orange County used jailhouse informants in an extraordinary and long-running scheme to obtain confessions from criminal defendants illegally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is alleging in a new lawsuit, The Guardian reports. The suit, filed Wednesday, alleges that the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department in the suburban county south of Los Angeles routinely employed prisoners – including hardened gang members – as informants and used “threats of violence to coerce confessions” from defendants, violating their rights to an attorney. The ACLU cited evidence amassed in criminal cases over the past five years, that prosecutors obtained material illegally, suppressed parts favorable to the defense, and sought to cover up the existence of the scheme.

“For 30 years, the Orange County sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office have been operating an illegal informant program out of the jails,” said ACLU lawyer Brendan Hamme. The ACLU complaint lays out particulars of the scandal, much of it based on documents produced by the county and by the courtroom testimony of county officials: evidence of informants telling cellmates they were marked for death by a “shot caller”, or gang leader, and could save themselves only if they talked in detail about their crimes; evidence that one informant was encouraged by police to help frame a 14-year-old boy for attempted murder even though several witnesses said the boy was nowhere near the scene of the crime. There also is evidence that informants were paid tens of thousands of dollars for their services, that prosecutors repeatedly failed to hand over documentation to defense lawyers as required by law, and that the sheriff’s office repeatedly lied under oath when asked about the existence of the informant program.