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US Dept. of Justice Launches Investigation into OC Prosecutorial Misconduct Scandal

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a civil pattern-or-practice investigation into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department’s alleged misconduct involving the use of jailhouse informants and withholding of evidence from defendants.

The alleged misconduct resulted in Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals’ removal of the entire OC DA’s Office from the high-profile case of mass shooter Scott Dekraai and the unraveling of a number of other cases going back decades. The DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department have been accused of housing inmate informants near defendants in order to procure confessions. Directing inmates to obtain incriminating statements from defendants is a violation of the 6th Amendment right to an attorney during questioning.

In November 2015, more than three dozen former prosecutors, legal experts, and organizations sent a letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a DOJ investigation.

“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,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “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.”

Both OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have said they welcome an investigation from the DOJ.

“I welcome this review and investigation and will cooperate fully,” Sheriff Hutchens said in a statement. “It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary and that upholds its duty to the inmates, our staff and the people of Orange County.”

(For more backstory on the scandal that has gripped Orange County for more than three years, go here.)


The above video is of an OC DA’s Office roundtable discussion held in January following the release of an internal report on the OC DA’s use of jailhouse informants.

7 Comments

  • Hutchens and Rackauckas can but a happy face on this all they want, but they are probably shitting golf balls. I predict that this caper, which I have been following in the paper, is going to end up with some bad news for the OC Sheriff and some members of her organization. It is alleged repeated counts of perjury from the top going down has occurred. Stay tuned and don’t be surprised if this goes criminal, big league.

  • I will be surprised if the investigation leads to wrongdoing by Sheriff Hutchens. She is, or at least was at LASD, an outstanding supervisor and leader. I can’t imagine her ever knowingly violating a law or procedure. Time will tell…

  • I encourage folks to read this story.

    http://www.ocweekly.com/news/sheriff-sandra-hutchens-refusal-to-obey-court-orders-may-lead-to-contempt-hearings-7749478

    It potentially has ingredients for “a stupid caper” like Pandora’s Box, that will take everyone down. And like PB, if this thing grows more legs than it already has, and the Feds start holding Grand Jury testimony and the OC Sheriff and OC DA folks strut into the hearings ala Tanaka and Baca with the “screw the Feds, we’re in charge,” mentality, Baca and Little Paul will have company in their dorms. And as history has shown us, the Feds will start with the low hanging fruit on their quest to make fruit salad.

  • I have also heard good things about OC Sheriff Hutchens being a stand-up, principled and supportive executive while at LASD. I think the people of OC and their BOS made a great choice when they chose Sheriff Hutchens. Too bad she was already committed, as I think she would’ve been an excellent choice to run the LASD. Having someone who has prior experience and knows how to run a sheriffs department is clearly a must. I’m sure the folks at LASD would agree.

  • Conspiracy,

    I do very much agree with your comments regarding Sheriff Hutchens. I worked for her when she was at LASD and it was a very good experience. She had a remarkable ability to cut through a lot of the organizational overhead of a large organization and that allowed her to provide a more stable environment where her subordinates could accomplish more than would have been possible with other Division Chiefs. It’s hard to do good work when you’re suffering from “Administrative Whiplash”.

    She would have been a very good choice for the interim Sheriff’s position, but then so too was John Scott.

    Jailhouse informants are always problematic. A good investigator should never deny themselves any lawful resource to solve a crime, but you also have to ensure that system has integrity. I’m not familiar with all of the aspects of the Dekraai case, but the Judge seems to have raised some significant concerns and that makes an independent investigation appropriate.

    Folks need to have trust in their law enforcement folks.

  • Inmates do not have a 6th amendment right to counsel when talking to other inmates. When a reporter gets a basic fact like that wrong it makes me wonder if she is a reporter at all. The scandals in Orange County are more complicated, and they deserve accurate reporting.

    • Matt,

      The reporter actually got this one right. This isn’t an issue where the inmate simply spoke with another inmate, nor was that the way the reporter characterized the conversation.

      Please read the article again, the issue presented was one where the inmate informant “was directed to obtain a statement.” The inmate informant was acting as an agent of the officers. That changes quite a bit with respect to the Sixth Amendment.

      The U.S. Supreme Court visited this issue in Kansas v Ventris and found it to be in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

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