Thursday, August 13, 2020
C.A. Reinstates Action Alleging Improprieties by Orange County Criminal Justice Officials
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A criminal justice watchdog group alleging that Orange County officials are operating a clandestine effort to promote jailhouse squealing with improper tactics have standing to move forward with their lawsuit, Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal held yesterday, reversing a judgment of dismissal.
Justice Raymond J. Ikola wrote the opinion which reinstates an action brought by People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement and three individuals against Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and others. Their taxpayers’ suit seek injunctive and writ relief against operation of what they allege to be an unlawful confidential informant program (“CI program”).
Demurrers were sustained by the Orange Superior Court based on a lack of standing.
“The raison d’etre of taxpayer standing, as well as the related doctrine of public interest standing in mandamus proceedings, is to confer standing on the public at large to hold the government accountable to fulfill its obligations to the public. Here, plaintiffs allege defendants operate a CI program whose principal aim is to obtain confessions from the accused in defiance of defendants’ statutory and constitutional obligations. The fundamental rights at stake fit comfortably within the doctrines of taxpayer and public interest standing. 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. Accordingly, we reverse.”
The jurist went on to say:
“The operative complaint describes a surveillance program in flagrant disregard of the government’s constitutional duties and limitations. Plaintiffs allege that defendants have gone so far as to permit confidential informants] to threaten to kill defendants if they do not confess to a crime, and they then compounded the transgression by actively concealing the existence of the CI program. We would be hard pressed to think of a more outrageous constitutional violation. Plainly, the constitutional rights the CI program is alleged to have violated—the rights to due process and the assistance of counsel, among others—are public rights that every citizen has an interest in upholding.”
The watchdog group alleges that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department recruits confidential informants among prisoners, who are ordered to get information from fellow inmates already being represented by counsel, and that in exchange for the illicit information, the sheriff awards informants with money and other perks and shave time off their sentences.
The district attorney then uses the information knowing how it is obtained in criminal investigations, according to the allegations.
Law enforcement authorities argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to lodge their complaint alleging constitutional and statutory violations on behalf of prisoners. The plaintiffs elected not to amend their complaint, and the trial court entered a judgment of dismissal.
On appeal, plaintiffs asserted they have standing as taxpayers and under the public-right exception to the normal beneficial interest requirement for filing for a writ of mandate. Ikola agreed that the plaintiffs had standing as they are “challenging the legality of ongoing police investigatory activities” and that such lawsuits are firmly supported by California courts.
Orange County authorities argued that the lawsuit would endanger their ability to execute its duties of investigating and prosecuting crimes. Ikola rejected the argument, declaring “an injunction against unlawful investigative methods cannot, by definition, interfere with the lawful exercise of defendant’s duties.”
He quoted the 1957 California Supreme Court opinion in Wirin v. Parker as saying:
“It is elementary that public officials must themselves obey the law.”
The case is People for the Ethical Operation of Prosecutors v. Spitzer, G057546.
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