The London Daily News reports that Scotland Yard may be facing contempt of court for refusing to reveal how much it spends on snitches. Story here. The paper reports that the city spends approximately $4 million a year to pay informants. While U.S. governments do not reveal such figures either, a study by the National Law Journal concluded that in 1993, federal agencies paid their confidential informants $97 million.
Witness intimidation is a serious problem in many drug and gang-related investigations. When prosecuting certain defendants, the government needs to be able to protect its witnesses from threats and intimidation. At the same time, most defendants pose no threat to witnesses, and defendants are constitutionally entitled to know who will testify against them and to get material evidence about those witnesses. The Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state’s highest or ‘supreme’ court, recently issued a thoughtful decision that highlights many of the tensions inherent in these two competing concerns. In Lancaster v. Maryland, in an armed robbery prosecution, the Court held that the trial judge erroneously permitted the government to withhold the names of key witnesses from the defendants before trial. The Court concluded that the government failed to support its contentions that the witnesses had been threatened or that the jailed defendants posed a substantial threat. The Court wrote:
The State failed to present any evidence regarding specific threats from Lancaster, his brother, or their associates, against the witnesses. No evidence was presented regarding Lancaster’s reputation for violence . . . The state also failed to identify any persons who might have carried out the alleged threats against the witnesses as Lancaster and his brother were incarcerated at the time. . . . We further conclude that the protective order in effect tied defense counsel’s hands and foreclosed him from pursuing a valuable source of information for cross-examination of the State’s witnesses.
The government had withheld the names of four witnesses: two of those witnesses were accomplices in the robbery and received light sentences in exchange for their cooperation, a fact that the defendants did not learn until trial.
By contrast, in Coleman v. State, an earlier Maryland case, the Court concluded that the trial judge properly withheld witness names from the defendants. In Coleman, the defendants were part of a gang that had threatened witnesses, there was evidence of specific threats against witnesses, and the defendants in the case were accused of murder.
The Lancaster and Coleman cases highlight the contextual nature of the problem–in some cases, withholding witness names and other information unfairly prevents defendants from challenging the accusations against them, while in other cases it is a vital precaution. Courts are supposed to carefully evaluate the facts each time. All too often, however, the mere claim that witnesses might be intimidated is persuading courts and other decision-makers to keep information secret, a phenomenon I explore at length in Chapter Four entitled “Secret Justice.” Here’s an excerpt:
Informant practices are inherently secretive: snitches often need their identities protected for safety, while the effectiveness of informant-driven investigations turns on their clandestine nature. But the secretive effects of using informants go far beyond ongoing investigations or protecting particular informants’ identities. Snitching has altered the ways that investigations are conducted and recorded; it affects public record-keeping by police and prosecutors, discovery practices, and what gets written down during plea negotiations. It has also shaped the informational rules prescribed by Supreme Court doctrine, internal judicial branch information policies, and even information-sharing between the Department of Justice and Congress. In other words, the pressure to conceal informant practices broadly affects the criminal system’s culture of record keeping, adversarial information-sharing, public policy and disclosure, making the entire process less transparent and accountable.
The American Bar Association just released an important new opinion regarding the prosecutorial ethical duty to disclose evidence and information favorable to the defense. The rule itself requires prosecutors to “make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” The opinion interprets this ethical mandate very broadly: it is more demanding than constitutional Brady disclosure requirements; it covers all information favorable to the defense, not just evidence; it is up to the defense, not the prosecution, to evaluate the utility of the information; the government must disclose information as soon as is reasonably practical, and the defendant cannot waive these rights or absolve the prosecutor of her disclosure duties. Here are a few key excerpts:
Rule 3.8(d) is more demanding than the constitutional case law in that it requires the disclosure of evidence or information favorable to the defense without regard to the anticipated impact of the evidence or information on a trial’s outcome. . . .The rule requires prosecutors to disclose favorable evidence so that the defense can decide on its utility.
The ethical duty of disclosure is not limited to admissible ‘evidence’ . . .; it also requires disclosure of favorable ‘information’. Though possibly inadmissible itself, favorable information may lead a defendant’s lawyer to admissible testimony or other evidence or assist him [sic] in other ways, such as in plea negotiations.
For the disclosure of information to be timely, it must be made early enough that the information can be used effectively. . . . Once known to the prosecutor, [evidence and information] must be disclosed under Rule 3.8(d) as soon as reasonably practical. . . Among the most significant purposes for which disclosure must be made under Rule 3.8(d) is to enable defense counsel to advise the defendant regarding whether to plead guilty.
Where early disclosure, or disclosure of too much information, may undermine an ongoing investigation or jeopardize a witness, as may be the case when an informant’s identity would be revealed, the prosecutor may seek a protective order.
This is an extremely important opinion for informant law and practice, for several reasons…(more after the break)
First is that a great deal of snitch litigation involves so-called Brady or Giglio claims (see this
Another interesting feature of the opinion is that prosecutorial supervisors must “establish procedures to ensure that the prosecutor responsible for making disclosure obtains evidence and information that must be disclosed.” This includes keeping track of information in one case that might need to be disclosed by a different prosecutor in another case. In other words, prosecutor offices must have data collection and dissemination mechanisms by which their employees can comply with their ethical obligations. This position contrasts with the recent Supreme Court decision in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein this year, in which the Court held that prosecutorial supervisors could not be sued for failing to create data collection systems to provide informant-related impeachment material to defendants. While under Van de Kamp a chief prosecutor cannot be sued for the office’s lack of disclosure procedures, under the ABA opinion she could be disciplined.
In effect, the ABA has decided that the Supreme Court’s decisions on prosecutorial disclosure are too weak, ethically speaking, and that prosecutors and their supervisors have far stronger professional obligations to disclose information to defendants, including information about government informants.
Ethical obligations are a crucial feature of the legal profession–attorneys can be disciplined, fired, or disbarred if they violate the ethical rules of their jurisdiction. Disclosure obligations are likewise central to prosecutorial integrity. Attorney General Eric Holder recently threw out the corruption case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens because Holder concluded that DOJ lawyers violated their obligation to disclose information to the defense. NPR story here. Insofar as states and prosecutors take this new ABA directive seriously, it could be a powerful engine for increased disclosure and transparency.
On a more technical note (non-lawyers may want to tune out here), the opinion does not explicitly address a constitutional issue raised by the Supreme Court in Ruiz. The Ruiz Court distinguished between exculpatory Brady material–material that directly pertains to the defendant’s guilt or innocence–and exculpatory Giglio impeachment material–material suggesting that the state’s witness is lying. Classic Giglio includes information about informant rewards, the informant’s criminal record, prior history of cooperation or falsehoods, or anything that would impeach the informant’s credibility. The Ruiz Court held that although Giglio material is a form of Brady material, the government can withhold that information from defendants prior to the entry of a plea, although not prior to trial. The ABA opinion makes clear, however, that prosecutors cannot wait for trial, but have to disclose information early enough so that defendants can use it meaningfully during plea negotiations.
The question is therefore whether Rule 3.8(d) applies to Giglio impeachment material in the same way that it applies to information that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused.” In my view, it does, although I recognize that the ABA opinion does not expressly say yes or no, nor does it distinguish between Brady and Giglio the way the Court did in Ruiz. The opinion does say, however, that a prosecutor’s ethical disclosure obligations are broader than her Brady disclosure obligations, which would suggest that the ABA did not think that the Ruiz distinction matters in the ethical context.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the opinion’s broad language seems consistent with requiring prosecutorial disclosure of Giglio impeachment. The opinion says that prosecutors must disclose any information favorable to the defense, even if it’s not material to the outcome, and that the defense gets to decide on its utility, particularly in figuring out whether to go to trial, plead guilty, or investigate other evidence. These are precisely the sort of decisions that are made based on impeachment material. The ABA even contemplates the situation where the government wants to withhold the identity of an informant: the opinion says that the government can seek a protective order, not that the government can withhold the information. In sum, it would seem anomalous for the opinion to require such broad disclosure, but then permit a prosecutor to withhold the fact that her main witness is being compensated for his testimony and has lied in previous cases.
Thanks to Scott Henson from Grits For Breakfast for passing along this important story on a battle raging within the St. Louis police department. Rank-and-file police are refusing to provide information about their snitches to their own police supervisors and city police officials. Here’s an excerpt:
Worried about liars in their ranks, city police officials are demanding that up to 20 officers tell bosses details about their confidential informers. But the St. Louis Police Officers Association has won a temporary restraining order to block the inquiry, pending a hearing in court next week. The organization says the probe would jeopardize informers’ lives, officers’ careers and public safety. At issue is whether officers have attributed fabricated information to confidential informers to obtain search and arrest warrants. Police brass acknowledge in court filings that they believe “one or more” officers “have included false information in affidavits” for warrants, and say the investigation is aimed at stopping “the concerns of police abuse and violation of civil rights.”
Ironically, one of the officers’ arguments against holding a public hearing is that if informants are called to testify, they will lie. These being the very same informants that police rely on to get the warrants in the first place.
The fact that street cops are at odds with their own police officials on this question reveals some deep dynamics about snitching, including what I call the culture of secrecy surrounding the entire practice. Police and their informants are heavily dependent on one another–police need information while offenders need protection against punishment. Police will often go a long way to protect their sources, famously from defendants and courts, but often from prosecutors and even sometimes from their own police supervisors. This does not mean that police handlers are necessarily corrupt: handling criminal informants inherently means doing unsavory things like ignoring their crimes, bending the rules, sometimes providing addicts with cash for drugs. However, the culture of secrecy makes illegal police conduct that much easier. See this NYT story on Brooklyn police who supplied their informants with drugs. Kudos to the St. Louis police officials who are trying to make the process more accountable and transparent.