Orange County supervisors are gearing up for the possibility of a U.S. Justice Department probe into the jailhouse informants scandal that has shaken the local criminal justice system.
At their regular meeting Tuesday, the supervisors went into closed session to talk about “the possibility that the United States Department of Justice may launch an investigation, and ultimately, initiate legal action against the County of Orange” based on alleged misconduct by local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in the use of jailhouse informants, according to a statement read aloud by County Counsel Leon Page.
Tuesday’s discussion was apparently a lengthy one, involving the supervisors as well as District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. The item was slated to start at 2 p.m., and supervisors didn’t emerge until four and a half hours later.
It follows calls by the New York Times editorial board and national legal authorities for a federal investigation into what has been characterized as systemic violations of defendants’ constitutional rights.
In their letter last month to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, six legal organizations, three dozen former prosecutors from across the nation, and constitutional law experts called the ongoing informants scandal “a crisis.”
“The constitutional rights of defendants appear to have been violated for decades in Orange County,” states the letter, which was signed Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law and a Voice of OC board member, and John Van de Kamp, a former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, California Attorney General and Los Angeles County District Attorney.
The DA’s office responded to the letter by saying that the authors haven’t attended court proceedings in one of the cases in question and “are relying on factually incorrect media accounts of the circumstances of the case.”
The scandal involves illegal misuse of informants to gain incriminating statements, withholding of key evidence from defendants, alleged perjury by law enforcement, and convicted criminals being released early due to the botching of their cases.
After revelations brought forth by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed DA prosecutors from the case against Scott Dekraai, who in 2011 committed Orange County’s largest mass murder when he shot and killed eight people, including his ex-wife, in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
A Justice Department attorney told the county in July that “the DOJ is keeping an eye on [the informants issue] to see how it develops,” according to a written summary obtained by the Orange County Register.
Given the timing of Tuesday’s discussion, it’s unclear whether federal authorities have given stronger indications that they could launch an investigation.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on whether an investigation is being considered, and a U.S. Attorney’s office spokesman referred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, whose spokesperson didn’t return a message late Tuesday.
If the Justice Department does file suit against the county, the supervisors would be in charge of the county’s legal defense, including hiring outside attorneys, directing the legal strategy, and figuring out how any settlement or other costs would be paid for.