Jailhouse informant Robert Plunkett reported to police that he had learned that attorney John Garcia was willing to deliver drugs into the Merced County jail. The police set up a sting, and Garcia accepted a bag containing methamphetamines from Plunkett for delivery to his (Garcia’s) incarcerated client. As a result of this transaction, Garcia’s law office was searched and he was arrested, although not prosecuted. He then sued the police for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, in effect arguing that based on Plunkett’s information they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him or get a warrant. Story here. In Garcia v. County of Merced, the 9th Circuit denied Garcia’s claim, reaffirming the principle that information from informants, if properly corroborated and checked, can constitute probable cause for arrest or for a warrant. In this case, “there were at least seven to eight items of corroboration that confirm what Plunkett reported.”
The opinion is additionally interesting because it was authored by Judge Stephen Trott, who has been an outspoken critic of the use of criminal informants and lectures prosecutors around the country on the perils of informant use. See Judge Stephen Trott, Outline of lecture to prosecutors on the use of informants. The opinion notes that jailhouse snitches are unreliable, that “the word of a jailhouse informant is suspect and ordinarily requires corroboration before it can be accepted as probable cause,” and that “jaihouse informants can always be presumed to be looking for consideration in return for the information.” In this case, however, the Court found that the police disclosed enough information to the judge who issued the warrant to put the judge on notice of Plunkett’s “suspect and shaky character.” That disclosure, in combination with the substantial corroboration, was enough for the warrant.