SANTA ANA (CNS) - A panel of Fourth District Court of Appeal justices today overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit against the Orange County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office regarding the so-called snitch scandal involving the use of confidential informants in the county's jails.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders last year dismissed the American Civil Liberties Union-led taxpayer lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the legal action as she also raised concerns about separation of powers issues.
The ruling, written by Justice Raymond J. Ikola with Justices Richard Fybel and David A. Thompson concurring, finds that the plaintiffs, which include Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed and her mother was wounded in the Salon Meritage mass murder, have the legal standing to sue local law enforcement over the confidential informant program.
“While it is true that individual defendants could challenge the CI program, the relief available to an individual defendant would be limited to that case, and, in any event, the law is well settled that the existence of parties with traditional beneficial interest standing does not deprive the public of taxpayer or public interest standing,'' Ikola wrote.
The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff “recruits'' snitches among inmates and moves them around to elicit confessions or incriminating statements whether they have an attorney or not. It is illegal for an agent of the government to question a defendant represented by legal counsel, but an inmate could “overhear'' incriminating statements and pass them on to law enforcement so long as there is no inducement to do so like a lighter sentence or a promise of other perks.
The lawsuit alleges the snitches are rewarded with “money, jailhouse perks, and `consideration,' such as time off their sentences,'' Ikola wrote. In some cases, the lawsuit alleges, inmates threaten violence to elicit an incriminating statement from a cellmate.
The lawsuit also alleges that prosecutors use the information – even when obtained illegally -- and does not disclose information about the confidential informant program to defendants as required by law.
“The complaint's factual recitation concludes by alleging there are 146 cases after June 9, 2016, in which it appears the District Attorney failed to turn over required impeachment evidence pertaining to the CI program,'' Ikola wrote.
The lawsuit seeks a variety of remedies, including a prohibition on the confidential informant program and an order to turn over evidence in cases that relied on snitches to help convicted defendants seeking freedom or new trials through habeas corpus.
Ikola said taxpayers do not have a right to sue to change the way prosecutors file charges or pursue criminal charges, but they can “enforce constitutional duties,'' which is what the lawsuit aims to do.
Ikola also brushed off defense arguments regarding the separation of powers, writing, “we have no concerns about this lawsuit interfering with legitimate operations of the sheriff's and District Attorney's Office.''
The ruling also dismisses claims that the lawsuit, if enforced, would interfere with pending criminal cases.
Ikola acknowledges that judges overseeing individual cases may come to different conclusions than the judge overseeing the civil case.
“But that sort of risk inherent in judicial systems, like ours...'' Ikola wrote. “That is not a sufficient basis to deny plaintiffs standing to pursue their claims.''
The ruling also dismisses claims that a statute of limitations has run out in some cases and that the plaintiffs have not shown there is an ongoing issue with using confidential informants.
“But plaintiffs more than met this burden,'' Ikola wrote. “In addition to alleging a CI program spanning over 30 years, plaintiffs allege an investigation that unearthed 146 cases after June 9, 2016, in which defendants committed violations similar to those described'' in the case of Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county's history, in which appellate justices found systemic corruption in the confidential informant program.''
The statute of limitations argument is moot in that plaintiffs are not seeking remedies for past cases, but to “restrain a violation that is ongoing,'' Ikola wrote.