Tony Saavedra / Staff Writer
Published: June 30, 2016
Updated: July 1, 2016 – 7:38 a.m.
The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the latest salvo in the group’s onging investigation into the county’s use of jailhouse informants.
In a letter sent Thursday to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the civil rights group reiterated a request first made in March that the county turn over a batch of internal documents related to informants and prosecutorial misconduct. Noting that Rackauckas has declined much of that request, the ACLU said it would file a lawsuit against the county, listing itself as the plaintiff, if Rackauckas doesn’t respond by July 14.
“We do not believe that what you produced satisfies your obligations under the California Public Records Act. Nor does it provide the public with desperately needed insight into the functioning of the District Attorney’s Office,” said the letter from ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney’s office, said her agency has turned over everything that the ACLU is legally entitled to, more than 300 pages of documents.
“The OCDA remains committed to making all public documents available to the public while fairly protecting privacy and legal rights of crime victims, witnesses, and police officers and maintaining public safety,” Schroeder said.
Questions about snitches and evidence have been thorns for local prosecutors for the nearly three years, as judges have ruled in several cases that defendants’ rights to a fair trial were violated.
The ACLU investigation could expand those questions by looking into idea that local prosecutors have systematically misused informants and withheld evidence favorable to the defense as a way to get convictions since at least the mid-1980s.
Among other things, the ACLU wants Rackauckas’ office to disclose the number of instances of confirmed prosecutorial misconduct dating back to 1985 and the resulting action taken by the district attorney’s office against those prosecutors.
The civil rights group also wants the number of cases of misconduct found against sheriff’s deputies and the punishments those deputies received, and the protocols and policies related to the use of jailhouse informants and the legal discovery process.
In all, the ACLU is seeking 29 categories of documents.
It is not illegal to use jailhouse informants to coax confessions from inmates, unless the inmate has hired an attorney and has been formally charged with a crime.
The district attorney’s office declined much of the ACLU’s request, calling it overly broad and saying much of it is exempted by state law or simply not available.
The ACLU isn’t the only outside group looking at local prosecutors.
In November 2015, a group of ex-prosecutors and legal scholars nationwide declared a “crisis” in Orange County and wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch seeking a federal probe. That request is under review.
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