Prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in California’s Orange County used jailhouse informants in an extraordinary and long-running scheme to illegally obtain confessions from criminal defendants, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is alleging in a new lawsuit.
The suit, filed early 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 a mountain of evidence, amassed in criminal cases over the past five years, that prosecutors obtained material illegally, suppressed parts favorable to the defence, 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,” the ACLU lawyer Brendan Hamme told the Guardian. “They’ve used it to coerce information from defendants, including with threats of death, and at the same time they’ve been systematically hiding evidence of that program. These sorts of tactics are offensive to basic constitutional principles and ethical duties.”The sensitivity of using jailhouse informants is well known and well documented. Whether the choice of this dubious, and often unreliable, method for obtaining information is malicious or attributable to tunnel vision, it raises very serious questions about dereliction of duty on the part of those who have the most power in the criminal justice system.