2 jailhouse snitches, who were paid $335,000 over 4 years, spark new legislation
“Puppet” and “Bouncer,” a pair of jailhouse snitches who were paid $335,000 over a four-year window for working dozens of cases in Southern California, have inspired a state bill to limit the rewards given to criminal informants.
Assembly Bill 359 on Tuesday sailed unanimously through the state Assembly Public Safety Committee, passing its first hurdle. The bill next goes to the Assembly floor for a full vote at a yet-to-be determined date.
Under the bill, snitches like Mexican Mafia members Raymond “Puppet” Cuevas and Jose “Bouncer” Paredes would no longer be able to live like kings behind bars, raking in as much as $3,000 a case as well as cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, fast-food, Xbox machines and other perks.
Court ledgers obtained by the Orange County Register show that between 2011 and 2015 police in Orange County paid $14,200 to the men, Riverside County paid $6,000 and law enforcement in San Bernardino County paid $3,750. The rest of the informant pay came from police agencies in Long Beach and Los Angeles County.
Police typically sent the men into jails to befriend suspects, usually other members of the Mexican Mafia, who hadn’t yet obtained legal representation. Cuevas and Paredes, in cells wired with recording devices, offered to help the suspects dodge a death penalty from the Mexican Mafia, but only if they confessed a complete history of their alleged crimes.
In Orange County, court records indicate that both men were among the informants sometimes employed to get information from suspects who already have lawyers, a practice that violates federal law. The county’s so-called snitch scandal also was mentioned by sponsors of AB 359 as inspiration for the law.
“The integrity of our criminal justice system is crumbling and one contributing factor is California’s long history of unethical and illegal use of jailhouse informants, like we are seeing play out in Orange County,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.
“This bill is a small but significant step to make sure our criminal justice system does what it is intended to do, which is to deliver on the promise of justice for all.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office did not answer a request for comment, and the California District Attorneys’ Association reported that it had no opinion on the bill at this time.
The bill caps all monetary and non-monetary payments to informants at $100 per case, including any investigatory work. Currently, the cap is $50 per case for testimony and no limit in compensation for investigation.
Additionally, the bill requires prosecutors to keep databases that track informant work and locations, and to turn detailed informant histories over to defense attorneys no later than 30 days before the preliminary hearing.
In Orange County, prosecutors have repeatedly failed to turn over details of their informant’s past work with police, a violation of discovery law.
The use of jailhouse informants is mostly unregulated in California and often susceptible to abuse, because there is an incentive for snitches to lie in order to receive payment or lenient treatment in their own cases, often called “consideration,” experts say. Cuevas and Paredes received leniency on charges that could have kept them in prison for life.
Alexandra Natapoff, an expert on informants and a professor at Loyola Law School, said California is behind other states in regulating the use of jailhouse snitches, but the bill would be an important start.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Natapoff said. She added that while monetary incentives would be capped, the bill does not address the most important reward for informants: leniency in their own criminal cases.
“It’s a great first step and the lesson from Orange County has only begun to resonate in Sacramento,” Natapoff said.
In Orange County, the DA’s office was booted in 2015 from the worst mass-murder case in county history because the judge came to believe that deputies were hiding records about jailhouse informants. Additionally, six murder and attempted murder cases have resulted in overturned convictions, dismissed charges and lenient penalties because of problems with jail informants. The California Attorney General’s Office, the Orange County Grand Jury and the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division are each investigating the county’s snitch crisis.
The problems were first unearthed by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders while battling to spare mass killer Scott Dekraai the death penalty.
“The hidden and unregulated use of jailhouse informants, as we have seen in Orange County, breaks down the integrity of the criminal justice system in three key ways: innocent people go to prison, justice for victims is delayed and public trust in the criminal justice system is eroded,” said a statement from Jones-Sawyer’s office.
“While informants can provide helpful information for sheriffs and district attorneys, and may help to obtain criminal convictions, it is essential that the means used be consistent with affording all defendants their constitutional rights to a fair process.”