Hutchens: It's in the public interest for the public to be kept in the darkEXPAND
Hutchens: It's in the public interest for the public to be kept in the dark
John Gilhooley / OC Weekly

OC Sheriff Fights Release Of Embarrassing Snitch Scandal Records

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is asking the California Court of Appeal to overturn a judge's pending decision to publicly release heavily redacted records tied to the county's ongoing jailhouse informant scandal.

Hutchens, who for three years has disobeyed Judge Thomas M. Goethals' 2013 discovery order to surrender the evidence by claiming she didn't know it existed, hopes appellate justices now accept her claim that those records are vital to daily jail operations and that public consumption of the details could result in apocalyptic consequences like the murders of deputies and inmates, according to Deputy County Counsel D. Kevin Dunn, who filed a Nov. 15 emergency appeal on the sheriff's behalf.

Earlier this month in People v. Scott Dekraai, Goethals considered the sheriff's arguments to keep secret all 1,157 pages of what is known as the long-hidden "Special Handling Log" and believes he appropriately addressed potentially valid safety and privacy concerns by ordering public access to only 243 pages beginning at noon on Nov. 18.

"The public has a compelling interest in what's going on all the time," the judge stated at a Nov. 8 hearing. "Certainly, in this case, there is a widespread interest in the specifics of what's going on. And I want the public to know and they deserve to know."

But, according to Hutchens, Goethals' "radical" stance means he "abused" his court authority because, in her view, the public's "safety and security interests" for government secrecy "vastly outweighs any interest in favor of public disclosure." She also claims release of the information "will have a drastic chilling effect on the flow of information at the jail" by frightening future in-custody informants from squealing about "inmate-planned assaults, escapes or criminal activity" at the jails.

"The public at large will suffer irreparable harm if [the appellate court] does not immediately stay the dissolving of the sealing order," Dunn told the justices. "[Goethals'] order was based on an erroneous balancing of the important interests."

But behind the alarmist rhetoric, the sheriff's real motives aren't pure.

As the Weekly previously reported based on court statements, the 243 pages scheduled for release contain evidence of deputies conducting illegal jail operation—the district attorney's office has called them "capers"—against targeted, pre-trial defendants as well as proof that deputies conspired to hide the Log from judges issuing discovery orders by collecting the same information in unnamed files.

Sheriff's department scheming prompted Goethals to note at the Nov. 8 hearing that he might order Hutchens and members of her staff to the witness stand to explain under oath why they still haven't obeyed his discovery orders issued 198 weeks ago in the death penalty case.

Dunn tried to explain away the disobedience by suggesting the sheriff has a right to keep certain information secret from courts and also that the delay can be attributed to Hutchens' desire "to err on the side of caution in disclosures" from her agency.

"I don't think the sheriff's department is playing games with anyone in this particular case," he said.

The judge, a former homicide prosecutor, didn't appear impressed.

"If I ever determine that [a subpoena for Hutchens to testify] is the appropriate order, I am going to expect her to be here," Goethals told Dunn.

He also stated his weighing of factors for release of the records "wasn't a close call" because "the public has a right to know what's going on unless a privilege or another  compelling interest requires that the public be left in the dark."

In 2014 and 2015, Hutchens' veteran deputies repeatedly lied to the judge about the existence of three department records systems: TREDs, the "Special Handling Log" and whatever replaced it, according to court records.

Prosecutors, whose cases have benefitted from deputies' unconstitutional jail scams, witnessed the perjury and spun the dishonest testimony as a reaction to unfounded conspiracy theories by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, the person who discovered the snitch scandal. Believing he can't trust government actors to follow basic ethical rules during the penalty phase of Dekraai, Goethals recused District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his entire office from the case in March 2015. The appellate court is scheduled to announce its view of that historic move in less than 70 days.

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