California officials used illegal tactics to force confessions from prisoners, lawsuit alleges

Tony Rackauckas
(Image credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Law enforcement in Southern California deliberately ran an illegal jail informant program for years, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Wednesday. Moreover, the officials carefully hid evidence that their methods were unconstitutional, the group claims.

The allegation is revealed in a new lawsuit filed Wednesday by the ACLU. The complaint accuses Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens of depriving defendants of the right to an attorney by using incarcerated informants to coerce confessions from defendants while they're in jail, often through threats of violence.

The ACLU claims that Orange County officials were working together to plant informants in jail to glean information on defendants awaiting trial. Informants facing lengthy prison sentences would agree to seek information in exchange for leniency, reports The Guardian. Officials would then allegedly instruct informants to threaten defendants with violence if they didn't admit to their crimes. "For many, the choice was clear," writes the ACLU. "Confess or die."

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The informant program ended in 2014, the ACLU reports, after a former defendant's attorney accused Rackauckas and Hutchens of knowingly breaking the law in an effort to extract information. Rumors of the program have fueled an ongoing scandal for the county in recent years, reports HuffPost, though officials have repeatedly denied any misconduct. While Hutchens has admitted to the use of informants, she maintains that the county acted within legal bounds, saying the improper use of informants was limited to a few rogue deputies rather than a county-sanctioned program.

The use of jailhouse informants is legal if a prisoner offers information unprompted, but a person who has been charged with a crime cannot be questioned by government agents — such as county-appointed informants — without their lawyer present. But the ACLU asserts that "the office is happy to use the illegally extracted information to secure convictions," so long as no one will know "the information was illegally obtained." Read more at the ACLU.

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