SANTA ANA (CBSLA) – The American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday announced it is suing Orange County over the sheriff’s department misuse of jailhouse informants, a scandal which created an uproar and led to sentence reductions or dismissals for many convicted prisoners.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, saying the defendants have conducted a secret jailhouse informant operation in violation of the U.S. Constitution, California Constitution, and California state laws.

The scheme has existed at least since the 1980s and was first exposed in the Scott Dekraai criminal case four years ago.

In August of 2017, an Orange County judge removed the death penalty as a sentencing option for 47-year-old Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing eight people in a 2011 shooting rampage at a Seal Beach salon, over the sheriff’s department’s use of jailhouse informants.

Dekraai’s lawyer began asking questions about the use of jailhouse informants after noticing the same snitch had chatted up Dekraai and another one of his clients. Authorities can use informants but can’t have them deliberately elicit information from defendants once they are represented by lawyers.

Dekraai’s attorneys, led by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, unearthed a trove of cases involving jailhouse informants who they claimed were being used in ways that violated the constitutional rights of many inmates.

After finding sheriff’s authorities lied or withheld snitch-related information, a judge yanked the O.C. district attorney’s office off Dekraai’s case in 2015. He also ordered authorities to release jailhouse records.

Last September, Dekraai was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms.

The fallout from the Dekraai litigation also helped get one killer out of custody and another one off the hook on a life sentence. In total, the defendants in at least 18 cases in Orange County have shown that the departments’ jailhouse informants were illegally involved in their cases and won sentence reductions or dismissals.

“For more than 30 years, the departments have recruited and placed informants in jail cells with defendants, paying and rewarding informants with sentence reductions for extracting incriminating information from the defendants without their lawyers present,” the ACLU said in a statement Wednesday.

“Some informants use threats of violence, including threats of murder, to coerce confessions and other information,” it said.

In June of 2017, the ACLU released a scathing 104-page report detailing what it calls troubling conditions inside the county’s jails.

The DA’s office issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit. It read, in part:

“We all know, the ACLU is against most things the Orange County District Attorney stands for, including enjoining gang members from terrorizing neighborhoods, keeping sexually violent predators civilly committed, and pursuing the death penalty against the worst of the worst murderers.

“The use of informants has been consistently upheld by the United States Supreme Court, which has pronounced, ‘The informer is a vital part of society’s defensive arsenal.” McCray v. Illinois (1967) 386 U.S. 300, 307. Likewise, Judge Learned Hand wrote, “Courts have countenanced the use of informers from time immemorial; in cases of conspiracy, or in other cases when the crime consists of preparing for another crime, it is usually necessary to rely on them or upon accomplices because the criminals will almost certainly proceed covertly.’ United States v. Dennis (2d Cir. 1950) 183 F.2d 201, 224.”

(©2018 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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