California

Justice Department probing California jail snitch scandal

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday opened an investigation into a long-running scandal over the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County, California, federal authorities said.

The civil pattern-or-practice investigation will look into allegations that county prosecutors and sheriff's officials used jailhouse snitches to get information from defendants in violation of their constitutional rights, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said in a statement.

The probe will also examine allegations that prosecutors in the Southern California county failed to turn over required evidence to defense attorneys.

"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," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in the statement.

"Our investigation will examine the facts and evidence to determine whether the District Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Department engaged in a pattern or practice of violating these rights," Gupta said.

The statement said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas requested the review. Messages were left seeking comment for Rackauckas and sheriff's officials.

The scandal began several years ago after the defense lawyer for mass killer Scott Dekraai learned that a jailhouse informant had been chatting up his client even though he already had a lawyer, and alleged a violation of his client's constitutional rights.

The discovery prompted the judge to open hearings into the issue and eventually yank county prosecutors from the case — a decision that was upheld by a state appeals court last month.

Since the discovery, other criminal cases in the county where jailhouse snitches were used have also been affected.