The United States Department of Justice on Thursday announced that the Orange County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department “systematically violated” the civil rights of those accused of a crime with their reliance on informants.

After looking at jailhouse informant activity between 2007 and 2016, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke concluded the program violated the defendants’ Sixth and 14th amendment rights.

Specifically, Orange County officials used informants to question defendants without a lawyer present, then failed to “disclose exculpatory evidence about those custodial informants to criminal defendants,” the DOJ said.

“All persons who are accused of a crime are guaranteed basic constitutional protections that are intended to ensure fairness in criminal proceedings and due process of law,” Clarke said in the release. “Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have an obligation to uphold these rights in their fight against crime and in their pursuit of justice, including in the way that they use custodial informants against criminal defendants. The failure to protect these basic constitutional guarantees not only deprives individual defendants of their rights, it undermines the public’s confidence in the fundamental fairness of criminal justice systems across the county.”   

The use of informants in the Orange County Jail was halted in 2016, but by that point, state and federal investigations had been opened into the practice, which was scrutinized during the trial of Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to Orange County’s deadliest mass shooting.

The state investigation was closed in 2019.

In its own review, the District Attorney’s office called the use of an informant before Dekraai’s trial prosecutorial “malpractice.”

The DOJ issued a report about the reforms already undertaken by the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department, as well as additional changes sought by the DOJ.

In a statement released on Thursday in response to the DOJ announcement, District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who took office after the informant program was ended, blamed the “the ‘win-at-all costs’ mentality of the prior OCDA administration.”

“This report confirms exactly what we already knew – there was a robust jailhouse informant program within the Orange County jail with the intent to elicit incriminating statements from represented defendants in violation of their constitutional rights,” Spitzer said. “Much of this activity was being hid from prosecutors, preventing the proper disclosure of informant information. This is unacceptable.”

Spitzer added that the reason he ran for office was to “clean up the public corruption that existed under the prior administration,” and his office has worked to “safeguard the criminal justice system from the abuses carried out by the prior administration.”

“The violation of a single defendant’s constitutional rights calls into question the fairness of the entire criminal justice system – and I have terminated cheaters who violated defendants’ rights and I will continue to do so,” he said.

The OCSD also issued a statement in response to the DOJ announcement, pointing out that the department “has worked diligently to address the issues” and “protect the constitutional rights of all persons housed in the Orange County Jails” over the past six years.

“I take seriously the issue of protecting the constitutional rights of the people in our custody,” Sheriff Don Barnes said in the statement. “I look forward to the DOJ reviewing our current policies, processes and procedures regarding custodial informants. I am confident they will find our current practices have addressed many of their recommendations, and anticipate a prompt and complete resolution to this matter.”