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Jailhouse Snitches: Are They Legal?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 20, 2015 10:55 AM

Snitches get stitches, as the popular refrain goes. But jailhouse snitches can get much more -- money, food, housing considerations, reduced or dropped charges, and, as promised in one case, the opportunity to join the army and "legally kill some people."

Multiple reports have revealed a complex and comprehensive jailhouse snitch program in Orange County, California, shining a light on the use and legality of jailhouse snitches like never before.

So how does law enforcement use jailhouse snitches and is their testimony legal?

(Don't) Stop Snitchin'

The use of confidential informants is widespread and generally viewed as an essential element in the criminal justice system. Informants can provide investigators with information they otherwise would never have access to, and without which many criminals would never be caught, much less convicted. In most cases, an informant can volunteer information to law enforcement, or be directed by officers to gain information.

For the most part, using snitches is perfectly legal, even if an informant is snitching to reduce his or her sentence. But jailhouse snitches pose a few unique problems. Most importantly, that most inmates have by that point invoked their right to counsel, meaning that the government can't attempt to elicit incriminating statements from a defendant without having their lawyer present. And that's exactly what Orange County is accused of doing.

OC? Oh No.

Instead of just waiting for inmates to come to them with incriminating information, the Orange County District Attorney's office is accused of running an extensive jailhouse snitch program which involved placing well-groomed informants next to unsuspecting defendants while they awaited trial. DA and Orange County Sheriff's Office personnel even trained informants on the kinds of questions to ask.

Because some inmates were already represented by lawyers, this was a violation of their right to counsel. Prosecutors also used this incriminating evidence in court without disclosing pieces of evidence that could have been beneficial to defendants -- another violation of a defendant's constitutional rights.

And if that wasn't enough, Orange County law enforcement (from sheriff's deputies to the county counsel) tried to keep the entire program, known as TRED, secret; going so far as to commit perjury before admitting they had any informants in their jail system. If not for a few dogged defense attorneys, none of these revelations would've come to light.

So what's next for the OC and their jailhouse snitch program? Probably nothing good. While jailhouse snitch testimony may be reliable and legal in some cases, Orange County's overzealous use of jailhouse snitches might mean a lot of shortened sentences and overturned convictions where the cases relied on informant testimony.

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