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Feds To Investigate Civil Rights Violations By Orange County D.A.'s Office, Sheriff's Department

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Department of Justice launched Thursday a civil rights investigation into both the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, reports the OC Register. The investigation will look into claims that the two departments had systematically withheld evidence that could have been beneficial to defendants, and had illegally obtained information through the use of jailhouse informants.

As noted in a release by the Department of Justice, the use of jailhouse informants can be a violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees a defendant’s right to have an attorney present when being questioned. The alleged actions may also be a violation of the 14th Amendment, which promises due process.

“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 [Tom Rackauckas] for the unrestricted access he has offered to provide,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.

The investigation comes after years of complaints lobbed by local defense attorneys, who claimed that the district attorney and sheriff deputies use informants and secretly-taped conversations to get convictions. These allegations were brought into the spotlight in the case of Scott Dekraai, a former tugboat operator who killed eight people in a 2011 mass shooting in Seal Beach (his ex-wife was among the victims). Dekraai would plead guilty to the murders, but his sentencing sits in limbo after it was discovered that prosecutors and deputies had colluded to use a jailhouse informant build a case against Dekraai. It was also discovered that some deputies had lied under oath.

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In 2015, a judge kicked the Orange County D.A. Office off the case, saying that the agency had engaged in false testimony and had withheld evidence. While Dekraai won’t go free, his sentencing has been sitting idle ever the judge’s dismissal of the D.A. It remains to be seen if Dekraai will get a life sentence or the death penalty.

Also, earlier this year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals granted a retrial for Anaheim man Henry Rodriguez, who’d already been twice convicted for the 1998 shooting death of a pregnant woman. Goethals, who was also responsible for removing the Orange County D.A. from Dekraai’s case, determined that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have indicated that a key witness in Rodriguez’s 2006 trial had a history of being a jailhouse informant for law enforcement agencies.

Amid the mounting allegations, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas established a panel earlier this year to investigate the inner-workings of his own office, reports the L.A. Times. The panel later came out with a report that claimed the D.A.’s office had suffered from a “failure of leadership" and that prosecutors were working with a ”win-at-all-costs mentality." In January, Rackauckas wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, saying that his office would cooperate with authorities if an investigation should be launched. “I am offering The United States Department of Justice unfettered access to any documents and/or personnel of the OCDA. Both myself and my staff welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with your department,” Rackauckas said in the letter.

After today’s announcement of the investigation, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens also said that her department would be cooperating with federal investigators. “I welcome this review and investigation and will cooperate fully. 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,” Hutchens said in a statement.

According to the Times, a federal lawsuit may be filed if authorities find there is evidence of systematic wrong-doing.

LAist reached out to the Orange County D.A.'s office, but no one was immediately available for comment.