Readers who have been following us and our posts and those who have read our book, Stack the Legal Odds in Your Favor: Understand America's Corrupt Judicial System—Protect Yourself Now and Boost Chances of Winning Cases Later, know that corruption is rampant within our legal system, a central theme in our book. Most recently, corruption has paid yet another visit to our own back yard here in southern California.
The U.S. Department of Justice is launching an investigation into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s department over allegations that prosecutors and police have violated the constitutional rights of litigants. Both are accused of routinely withholding evidence and using jailhouse informants to obtain confessions illegally. The decision to conduct this investigation was announced by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. It follows on the heels of complaints from local defense attorneys over many years. These local defense attorneys allege that the district attorney and sheriff’s deputies routinely violate ethics and rules of procedure in court, misuse informant testimony, and secretly record conversations of the incarcerated in order to sustain convictions. Although there have been some high-profile federal investigations into policing agencies, investigation into any district attorney’s office is a rather rare event.
Both District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchins issued statements offering their respective departments’ cooperation and welcomed a federal investigation. The head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, said that “a systematic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system.” The Department of Justice’s investigation team will have unrestricted access to examine whether or not the facts and evidence support corruption by the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department.
In the early stages of the investigation, Sheriff Hutchins said, “I welcome this review ... It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary.” It is interesting to note her use of the phrase “jail system.” Such a phrase is not common in legal writing, and it almost seems to imply the intent of the system, hers anyway, is to fill the jails. The same article from which this quote was taken in the Orange County Register stated, "At the same time, the Orange County grand jury received money from the county to conduct an investigation into the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department." While the duties of some grand juries certainly fall into the realm of investigating corruption, the phrase “received money” casts aspersion onto the legality of the payment.
A noteworthy development is that the sheriff’s department was forced to turn over thousands of electronic files because of a motion filed in a particular criminal case. The files showed that deputies commonly used jailhouse informants in order to give unfair advantages to prosecutors. Once again, we point out in our book that just because misdoings by a member of the legal system are discovered, such findings are not necessarily all-inclusive. It simply raises the question: how much goes on that we don't know about?
Earlier this year, Rackauckas deferred to a panel of lawyers in order to offer improvements to his office. They issued a report stating that local prosecutors had a “win at all costs” mentality. This confirms the same mentality we describe and further support in our book. Prosecutors are not always interested in getting to the truth of the matter—just in attaining victory, and this must change.
Last month, a state appellate court issued a ruling that described constitutional abuses by local prosecutors and deputies, adding that in at least one high-profile case the district attorney’s office had failed in its responsibility to follow the law. In addition, the California attorney general has been investigating local officials for at least eighteen months. The investigation puts Orange County in the company of places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where the Justice Department launched investigatory probes into allegations of police brutality and civil rights violations after citizens died at the hands of police.
To their credit, Orange County public defenders were instrumental in uncovering the alleged illegal/unethical conduct and are hopeful that the investigation could help fix the local criminal justice system. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the Justice Department’s investigation will have on the operation of the Orange County jail, the district attorney’s office, and the Orange County criminal justice system in general. Let’s hope the investigation returns integrity and justice back to this southern California system.