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OC jail snitch scandal report is cold comfort

June 18, 2017

While Orange County’s top prosecutor gloats over last week’s grand jury report, which found there was no official snitch program in county jails, it’s worth noting that the report’s findings fall well short of exonerating the county’s top law enforcement officials.

The District Attorney’s Office has touted the report since its release last week, claiming that it vindicates both prosecutors and sheriff’s officials, who have been accused of running an illegal network of informants in county jails.

The scandal had loomed over the District Attorney’s Office since it was removed from prosecuting the worst mass killing in the county’s history — the case of Scott Dekraai, who murdered his ex-wife and seven others in a 2011 shooting spree.

While it’s true that the report, titled “The Myth of the Orange County Jailhouse Informant Program,” found that there was no such formal program, that finding appears to be based on the expectation that such a program would have a documented strategic plan, a schedule of informants, formal training, a dedicated budget, job descriptions and other such bureaucracy one would expect from a bona fide government agency.

The grand jury found none of these documents.

What the grand jury did find was that the county’s snitch scandal arose from “a few rogue deputies (who) got carried away with efforts to be crime-fighters.” According to this narrative, the rights of suspects weren’t violated intentionally, but rather because of “a lack of supervision and laziness in the practice of law.”

The grand jury notes that this lax supervision dates back to at least 2002, which is when a previous grand jury found leadership wanting in the OCDA’s office. The 2017 report notes: “After nearly 100 interviews with OCDA personnel, it became clear to the OCGJ that lack of leadership persists.”

The grand jury also found that while the DA’s office revised procedures for handling informants last August, most prosecutors, as of November, were unaware that there was a new manual.

These are not findings to boast about, and the public should not be comforted by them.

The findings also fly in the face not just of media reports, but also of court findings.

In November, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal argued that OCSD “created and maintained a [confidential informant] program whereby it continued to investigate criminal activity in contravention of targeted defendants’ constitutional rights,” and that “the only identifiable use for the evidence the OCSD obtained from its [confidential informant] program was for use by the OCDA.”

Likewise, in court earlier this year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals made a point of repeating an assertion by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens that “The deputies in the jail are not conducting investigations … we don’t have our folks working informants,” as he read through memos showing that informants were routinely distributed throughout O.C. jails for many years.

Other “disparate facts,” including testimony this week from a retired sheriff’s lieutenant who oversaw the jail special handling unit in which she helped “formalize” the use of informants, and last year’s acknowledgement by the OCDA that deputies “recruited and utilized numerous informers,” complicate the picture presented by the grand jury.

Of course, the grand jury’s report is not the final word.

State and federal investigations are ongoing.

In the meantime, the OCDA and OCSD should continue to correct the systemic and cultural issues that allowed these issues to arise in the first place.

In the words of the grand jury, “It is clear to the OCGJ that had individuals charged with supervising prosecutors been more aware of how those prosecutors were conducting business, their high caseload and shoddy record-keeping habits, this entire episode could have been avoided.”

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