OC hasn't done enough in response to snitch scandal: FBI report

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An OC Sheriff's Department helicopter is parked at SNA Airport, April 9, 2022. Photo by Shutterstock.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department used jailhouse informants in an illegal way, and the District Attorney's Office hid evidence from defense attorneys. Because of that, the county lessened or overturned sentences in more than a dozen criminal cases between 2007 and 2016. Federal authorities have been investigating ever since, and they just came out with a damning 63-page report.

“For years before 2012 …the Sheriff's Department started doing this secret database of jailhouse informants, colloquially known as snitches, in which they were gathering information that the Sheriff's Department would then pass along to the District Attorney's Office, and they were able to get many convictions like this,” explains Gustavo Arellano, columnist for the LA Times. 

He says this program was under wraps until 2011, when a mass shooting broke out at a beauty salon in Seal Beach. The gunman, Scott Evans Dekraai, confessed, so it should have been an easy conviction by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. 

“But they kept using jailhouse informants even on [Dekraai]. And if it wasn't for the public defender Scott Sanders, none of this would have ever been exposed.” 

Current OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer ran on reforming the Sheriff’s Department. But according to the new report, he hasn’t implemented as much change as he claimed he would, Arellano says. 

“One of the big things that the fed says [is] do an independent review, do an independent panel that’s gonna go through this. And that's the last thing Todd wants, because Todd imagined himself the cowboy riding a white horse with a white hat saying, ‘I'm gonna take care of everything.’ And if someone's saying, ‘Nope, you can't do it good enough,’ he's gonna get mad.” 

Sheriff Don Barnes says his department has implemented reforms, but Arellano says questions remain. 

“He was the handpicked successor to [former Sheriff] Sandra Hutchins. So he has said he's tried to implement reforms, but the feds don’t believe that at all. … Barnes was under that administration under Hutchins, where this jailhouse informants scandal was happening. He'll always say that he knew nothing about it, but it was definitely happening while he was a sheriff's deputy himself.”

No one was held criminally accountable in this scandal, Arellano says. “You had six [convictions for murder and other serious crimes] overturned. … It's not over because it implicated Spitzer and Barnes, and they're still in power. Until they actually do reforms, jailhouse and prosecutorial misconduct is still going to happen.”