Author, Expert & Speaker

The curtain rises for Act 2. As discussed in Act 1, Greenlighting: Jailhouse Snitches, the term greenlighting comes from a lawsuit filed in the Orange County (California) superior court on April 4, 2018, against the Orange County district attorney and the sheriff. The lawsuit does not ask for money; it asks the court to overhaul the Orange County justice system, which is allegedly “in disrepair and disrepute.” See P.E.O.P.L.E. vs. Rackauckas, which I’ll refer to as the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, brought by the Southern California branch of the ACLU, encompasses a circus of characters in an upside-down world of a county criminal justice system gone afoul. The convoluted nature of the allegations, including the stories of eighteen detainees awaiting determination of their criminal charges, lends itself to what could be a two-act play with myriad scenes, a compelling plot, whodunits, and disturbing conduct against detainees presumed to be innocent by the holders of the keys to the jail.

Act 2, Scene 1. Point of Attack:[1] Greenlighting

Notes to scene: Greenlighting elements are woven throughout the scene as a dark omniscient power in the guise of a diabolical, pernicious force. A greenlighter is a paid jailhouse snitch.

Stage Directions for the Greenlighting Snitch

The following stage directions are taken in part from the lawsuit.

  • The snitch is an Orange County Jail (OCJ) detainee facing criminal charges himself.
  • The snitch gets cozy with a target, another detainee with pending criminal charges.
  • The snitch tells the target that he “is a member of a well-known gang, and that the gang has ‘greenlit’ the target, meaning the target is to [be] attacked, and possibly killed, on sight.”
  • The snitch “further explains that the target has been ‘greenlit’ because of the target’s involvement in the crime for which he is suspected.”
  • The snitch “then warns that the ‘greenlight’ will be rescinded if, and only if, the target confesses to his role in the crime.”

Main Plot

The snitch is empowered by the Orange County (California) District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) to elicit illegal confessions through coerced information from the target. This information will end up in the target’s criminal record, although the confession was made under fear of deadly reparations from a local gang. In exchange for his subterfuge, the snitch is rewarded by the OCDA and OCSD, according to paragraph 35 of the lawsuit, “with lenient sentences, vast sums of money, and numerous other benefits.”

The Plot Thickens

Quoting from the complaint, the plot is illustrated:

32. Informant operations follow a basic pattern. The OCSD identifies a “target inmate” from whom OCSD, OCDA, or another law enforcement agency wishes to extract information. OCSD then moves the target inmate and/or the informant so that the informant is in close proximity to the target, often in the same or an adjoining cell.

33. Often, OCSD places multiple informants and targets in the same housing module in order to create a target-rich atmosphere for obtaining statements; these modules are commonly referred to as an “informant tank.”

34. OCSD also routinely arranges for “coincidental” contact between the target and informant in other locations, including while inmates are being transferred to and from jail. OCSD has a practice of directing such operations against inmates whom OCSD and OCDA know are represented by counsel.

Although the OCDA, including the named district attorney himself, denied any knowledge of a data base—special handling log—that showed the tracking of jail detainees, the complaint contains information about records of housing movements where the placement of snitches was carried out against target detainees who were represented by attorneys. Paragraph 82 of the complaint alleges that

OCSD and OCDA are and have at all relevant times been aware that informants routinely used such threats to elicit information, but have done nothing to stop this practice. By turning a blind eye to the threats made by their informants, and by continuing to use these informants to gather information, OCSD and OCDA facilitate, encourage, and benefit from the continued violation of inmates’ constitutional rights.

Act 2, Scene 2. The Defense: Rising Tension

Notes to scene: the law that exemplifies the plot is an omnipresent spotlight on the stage that can be obscured in darkness by the defendants’ pushback on the allegations.

In a March 16, 2018, Orange County Register article, reporter Tony Saavedra quoted defendant Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas regarding the allegations made against him and his department: “You’re talking about this informant issue that you’re referring to as a ‘scandal,’ and I really think that is a very serious exaggeration.”

On July 5, 2017, Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard reported on testimony given by Orange County sheriff Sandra Hutchens in a hearing about the jailhouse informant scandal. When confronted with her conflicting reports of the use of paid informants, she said, “There may have been a few deputies who took their duties to different levels than were authorized.”

Stage Direction: The Supreme Court Enters Center Stage

A key element in the conflict is raised with the citing of the 1991 Arizona Supreme Court case Arizona v. Fulminante.[2] This case clarified the standard of review of a criminal defendant’s allegedly coerced confession. Here are the brief facts of the case:

  • Fulminante was suspected of murdering his stepdaughter.
  • Arrested in New York and convicted on an unrelated crime, Fulminante became friends with Sarivola, an inmate paid by the FBI to collect information on other inmates.
  • When Sarivola told Fulminante that he knew Fulminante was getting tough treatment from other inmates because of a rumor that he was a child murderer and offered him protection in exchange for the truth, Fulminante admitted to killing the girl.
  • After Fulminante was released from prison in New York, he also confessed to Sarivola’s wife, Donna.
  • Subsequently, Fulminante was indicted in Arizona for first-degree murder. The trial court denied his motion to suppress the confession to Sarivola, rejecting his contention that the confession was coerced and thus barred by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Fulminante was convicted and sentenced to death.
  • The state supreme court held that the confession was coerced and sent the case back for a new trial without the use of the confession.

The 5–4 decision of the supreme court was that Fulminante was coerced to confess in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The court found that “it was fear of physical violence, absent protection from his friend . . . Sarivola, which motivated Fulminante to confess.” This motivation invalidated the confession. Since Fulminante’s confession to Donna Sarivola was closely tied to the first coerced confession, the court dismissed both.

Examples of Greenlighting in the Complaint

Due to space limitations, I have not addressed any of the eighteen alleged incidents where paid informant information caused havoc in the criminal defense of presumptively innocent men. I encourage you to read about these cases, starting on page 21 of the complaint. Of particular interest is the case involving “14-year old Luis Vega, an innocent child, [who] languished in jail for two years before OCDA finally dropped the charges against him, all because they wanted to hide the existence of the illegal Informant Program” (see page 26).

Dénouement[3]

Because the subject civil complaint asking the Orange County superior court to overhaul the Orange County justice system is in its infant stage, the climax of the case, beyond the pleadings filed by both sides, remains unknown. I will watch events in the lawsuit and report on the ultimate conclusion and findings.

The final element of a two-act play is the resolution of the tension inherent in the scenes of the play as a whole. There’s a lot riding on this case as far as how criminal justice is administered in Orange County.

I always welcome your comments and insights.

 

Image courtesy of 123rf

[1] What the audience will first hear in a play’s act.

[2] 499 U.S. 279

[3] The climax of a play

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