The U.S. Department of Justice is launching a civil rights investigation into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department over allegations that prosecutors and police routinely withhold evidence and use jailhouse informants to illegally obtain confessions. From left, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. (Photos by Orange County Register/SCNG)

By Kelly Puente / Staff Writer
Published: Dec. 15, 2016
Updated:   Dec. 16, 2016 – 7:12 a.m.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department on Thursday over allegations that prosecutors and deputies withhold evidence and use jailhouse informants to illegally obtain confessions.

The investigation, announced by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, comes after years of complaints from local defense attorneys that the district attorney and sheriff’s deputies routinely cheat in court, misuse informants and secretly tape conversations in jails to get convictions. While there have been high-profile federal investigations into police agencies, the Justice Department rarely investigates prosecutors.

In January, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has denied intentional wrongdoing, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch saying his office would welcome a federal investigation. The office issued a statement Thursday saying it would cooperate with investigators and expects to be exonerated.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens also issued a statement offering her department’s cooperation, adding: “I welcome this review … It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary.”

The Justice Department can go to court to force local cooperation if the District Attorney’s Office or Sheriff’s Department declines.

“A systematic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a news release.

“Our investigation will examine the facts and evidence to determine whether the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department engaged in a pattern or practice of violating these rights. We are grateful to District Attorney Rackauckas for the unrestricted access he has offered to provide.”

FIX THE SYSTEM

The Justice Department’s announcement of its investigation came in the form of a letter to the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department budgets. Several supervisors said Thursday that they welcome the investigation.

What effect, if any, the Justice Department’s investigation will have on the operations of the Orange County jail and the District Attorney’s Office still is to be determined.

“We appreciate the District Attorney’s invitation to review his office’s policies and practices, along with his assurance of unfettered access to documents and personnel in his office,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker of the Central District of California said in a separate news release. “We are confident that this investigation, and the cooperation being offered by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, will help restore public confidence in the integrity of the Orange County criminal justice system.”

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