- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday sued officials in Orange County, California, saying the county for years has recruited jail inmates to spy and rat out fellow inmates, with the informants allegedly going so far as to threaten to kill people to make them talk.

County officials shaved time off some informants’ sentences and paid others hundreds of thousands of dollars as rewards, the ACLU charged in its complaint, which asks a state court to block Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens from continuing the program.

“They have needlessly compromised meritorious prosecutions and denied individuals who are innocent until proven guilty the evidence needed to defend themselves,” the ACLU said.

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Using jailhouse snitches is legal, though there are limits.

Mr. Rackauckas‘ office indicated that county prosecutor is comfortable with the jail-informant program.

“We all know, the ACLU is against most things the Orange County district attorney stands for, including enjoining gang members from terrorizing neighborhoods, keeping sexually violent predators civilly committed, and pursuing the death penalty against the worst of the worst murderers,” Mr. Rackauckas‘ office said in a statement.

The sheriff’s department declined to comment, though it took to Twitter to say it has cooperated in state and federal investigations of its jail-informant program.

Mr. Rackauckas had asked for the federal Justice Department to probe the county’s program after past hiccups, including a 2011 murder case in which the defendant’s sentencing was delayed for years after the county was accused of withholding evidence from a jailhouse informant.

The ACLU said county officials would offer informant information as reliable when it was actually the result of intimidation or coercion.

“Hiding the facts of the coercion from the defense is just one of the many ways they broke the law and endangered justice,” said Brendan Hamme, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

In other instances, the informants acquired information that could have freed inmates but it was kept hidden, the ACLU said.

It pointed to a case in which Luis Vega, 14, remained in jail on a $1 million bond on attempted murder charges even after jailhouse informants told authorities he was innocent. One informant said another man who was arrested with teenager Alvaro Sanchez had confessed to the crime; another informant said Luis was not involved.

But Luis’ lawyer never received the exculpatory evidence from the prosecution.

“Luis Vega, an innocent child, languished in jail for two years before [the district attorney] finally dropped the charges against him, all because they wanted to hide the existence of the illegal informant program,” the ACLU said in the lawsuit.

In another case, the district attorney’s office used evidence gained after its informant had threatened to kill a witness but didn’t reveal that it had a recording of the threats, the ACLU charged.

Mr. Rackauckas has denied withholding evidence when asked about the informant program in 2017 during an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“It’s simply not the case,” he said.

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