Category Archives: Confidential Informants

SCOTUS Eliminates the “Provocation Rule”

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In  County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule,” a doctrine which makes officers liable for injuries caused by their use of force.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received word from a confidential informant that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While other officers searched the main house, Deputies Conley and Pederson searched the back of the property where, unbeknownst to the deputies, respondents Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived.

Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the door of the shack. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. Deputy Conley yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies immediately opened fire, shooting Mendez and Garcia multiple times.

Officers did not find the parolee in the shack or elsewhere on the property.

PLAINTIFF’S CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIMS

For those who don’t know, the “Provocation Rule” holds that if a police officer recklessly promotes a potentially violent confrontation with a Fourth Amendment violation, the officer is liable for any injury caused by a subsequent use of force that results from that confrontation, even if the use of force itself was reasonable.

Armed with the “Provocation Rule,” Mendez and Garcia sued the police deputies and the County under 42 U. S. C. §1983. They advanced three Fourth Amendment claims: a warrantless entry claim, a knock-and-announce claim, and an excessive force claim. On the first two claims, the Federal District Court awarded Mendez and Garcia nominal damages. On the excessive force claim, the court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable, but held them liable nonetheless under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, which makes an officer’s otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if (1) the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and (2) “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation,.

The Government appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim and that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law. It also affirmed the District Court’s application of the provocation rule, and held, in the alternative, that basic notions of proximate cause would support liability even without the provocation rule.

The Government appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S Supreme Court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

In short, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment offers no basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule.” It reasoned that the rule is incompatible with this Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, which sets forth a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the legal issue is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifies a particular sort of search or seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner.

The Court reasoned that the provocation rule instructs courts to look back in time to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force. Problematically, this approach that mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. To the extent that a plaintiff has other Fourth Amendment claims, they should be analyzed separately.

“The Ninth Circuit attempts to cabin the provocation rule by defining a two-prong test: First, the separate constitutional violation must “create a situation which led to” the use of force; and second, the separate constitutional violation must be committed recklessly or intentionally,” said the Court.

The U.S. Supreme thought this approach was mistaken. First, the rule relies on a vague causal standard. Second, while the reasonableness of a search or seizure is almost always based on objective factors, the provocation rule looks to the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure:

“There is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in this way in order to hold law enforcement officers liable for the foreseeable consequences of all their constitutional torts.”

Plaintiffs can, subject to qualified immunity, generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation. Here, reasoned the Court, if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not stop them from recovering for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

“The Ninth Circuit’s proximate-cause holding is similarly tainted,” said the Court. Its focuses solely on the risks foreseeably associated with the failure to knock and announce—the claim on which the court concluded that the deputies had qualified immunity—rather than the warrantless entry.

My opinion? I concur with  blogger Radley Balko’s insights on this. He blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post, and says the following:

“The cops, on the other hand, engaged in some incredibly sloppy policing that nearly got someone killed. They violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights not once, but twice. Then they filled the couple with bullets after they mistook Angel Mendez’s reach for his pellet gun as a threat. Angel Mendez was shot five times, and lost his right leg below the knee. Jennifer Mendez was shot in the back. That was 6½ years ago. They still haven’t seen a dime. And after Tuesday’s ruling, it seems unlikely that they ever will.”

Exactly.

Sessions Seeks Harsher Prosecutions & Stricter Sentences

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Today, CNN Reporter Laura Jarrett broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a new directive for federal prosecutors across the country: charge suspects with the most serious offense you can prove.

Friday’s announcement follows a line of several other significant departures from Obama-era domestic policies at the Justice Department, but this decision crystalized Sessions’ position in the criminal justice realm.
In a brief one-and-a-half-page memo, Sessions outlined his new instructions for charging decisions in federal cases, saying that his new first principle is “that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions later adds.
While the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory — and take into account everything from a defendant’s criminal history to cooperation with authorities — some judges have felt handcuffed by mandatory minimums, which provide a statutory sentencing minimum of months below which the judge cannot depart.
The move was harshly criticized by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute focused on democracy and justice.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” Inimai Chettiar, the center’s justice program director, said Friday. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime.”
“That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration,” she added. “It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
Sessions also formally withdrew a signature part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which sought to target the most serious crimes and reduce the number of defendants charged with non-violent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a 2013 memo. “In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution.”
As a result, during the Obama era, federal prosecutors were instructed not to charge someone for a drug crime that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence if certain specific factors were met: (a) the relevant conduct didn’t involve death, violence, a threat of violence or possession of a weapon; (b) the defendant wasn’t an organizer, leader or manager of others within a criminal organization; (c) there were no ties to large-scale drug trafficking operations; and (d) the defendant didn’t have a “significant” criminal history (i.e., prior convictions).
All of those charging factors are now gone under Sessions’ reign and not surprising, as he has previously telegraphed his desire to prosecute more federal cases generally.
My opinion? We’re bringing back the War on Drugs. As it stands, the federal government typically prosecutes only the most serious offenses, and does so with what can seem to be a crushing investigation and avalanche of evidence. Their resources are vast. Mounting a defense can feel daunting.
Here, the effects of Session’s decision will most immediately be felt in the context of drug crimes. Federal mandatory minimums can be harsh because the sentences are dictated based on drug type and quantity.
Said differently, Sessions decision could bring back the War on Drugs. His actions are already embracing it’s worst features: confidential informants, harsh plea bargains and long sentences.

“Incentivized” Informants

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Very interesting op-ed piece from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project discusses how Senate Bill 5038 rightfully confronts and addresses the issue of false testimony by “incentivized” confidential informants in criminal cases.

State Senate Bill 5038 adds to key advances that Washington has already made over the years to improve the administration of justice. “Incentivized” informants are people who are often used by the government in criminal prosecutions to provide information or evidence against defendants in exchange for an explicit promise or expectation of a personal benefit.

“Benefits include anything from reduced or eliminated jail time to improved living conditions behind bars to monetary rewards,” says Scheck. “Recognizing both the value of this testimony to the state and the risk that a witness will be tempted to give false testimony in order to benefit personally, this bill outlines specific information that must be learned and turned over to the defense in the discovery process before trial.” This, says Scheck, will ensure that all parties have an opportunity to properly scrutinize the informant.

“The reality is, some informants lie,” said Scheck. “When they do, they undermine the integrity and the truth-seeking function of our justice system.” In support of his argument, Scheck cited these facts:

• False testimony by incentivized witnesses is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases nationally, a contributing factor in nearly half of such exonerations.

Of 349 DNA-based exonerations, 17 percent involved an incentivized witness.

• In Tulia, Texas, 46 innocent people were convicted of drug charges based on the testimony of a single, lying informant.

• Ten Washington state wrongful conviction cases listed on the National Registry of Exonerations involved the use of incentivized testimony.

Scheck believes these numbers demonstrate that this is a national problem, requiring all states to look closely at the safeguards needed to regulate this system. SB 5038 addresses an information gap in the system that will improve accuracy and protect constitutional rights. Prosecutors have a responsibility to know and disclose this information.

In this year alone, in addition to Washington, four states are considering proposals to strengthen or establish new frameworks for assessing informant testimony. Notably, while some proposals go further than others, all of these proposed reforms impose new disclosure requirements around incentivized informants.”

My opinion? For far too long, the world of incentivized informants has been an evidentiary black hole. The testimony of jailhouse snitches, confidential informants and co-defendants should immediately be treated as suspect. Every year that passes without these reforms puts more innocent people at risk and strikes at the heart of the credibility of our justice system. A healthy justice system demands that we ensure that the strongest protections are in place for the innocent.

Brady v. Maryland to the Rescue

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In United States v. Yepiz, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the convictions for numerous defendants so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether a government’s witness received benefits that were undisclosed to the defendants at the time of trial.

The defendants are all alleged to be members or associates of the Vineland Boys (“VBS”), a gang located in Southern California. On November 30, 2005, a grand jury returned a 78-count first superseding indictment charging appellants and approximately forty other individuals with crimes arising out of their membership or association with VBS.

Seven of the nine defendants were charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), and with RICO conspiracy, and all appellants were charged with federal distribution of narcotics. Other charged counts included violent crimes in aid of racketeering (“VICAR”), attempted murder, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

Trial commenced on August 9, 2006. On October 26, 2008, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty as to five counts, a mistrial as to one count, and a verdict of guilty as to the remaining counts. The defendants timely appealed their convictions and sentences. This case was vigorously litigated over the course of two-and-a-half months. It presented the federal district court with a gauntlet of complex legal questions, and required it to grapple with unique concerns to courtroom safety and logistics.

At trial, one of the government’s cooperating witnesses was Victor Bulgarian. In September of 2006, on direct examination, Bulgarian testified that he was previously arrested for possession and sale of methamphetamine in an unrelated case, and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence, and a grant of immunity for his testimony as a government witness.

Bulgarian testified to having received no benefits from the government in exchange for his testimony. However, on cross-examination, Bulgarian testified to having received $5,000 in cash from the government after he testified to the grand jury in this case. Defendants noted that this testimony directly contravened a letter the government sent to them asserting that no witnesses received any benefits from the government in exchange for their testimony. The government acknowledged that it was “a glaring mistake,” but argued that the error was cured because defendants had ample opportunity to cross examine Bulgarian on the subject of the $5,000 payment. Defendants did not raise the issue again either at trial or in a post-trial motion.

Approximately three years later, on August 20, 2009, Bulgarian testified in the trial of defendant Horacio Yepiz. On direct examination, Bulgarian once again testified to having received no benefit from the government in return for his testimony. On cross examination, however, Bulgarian testified that since his arrest for drug-related crimes in 2004, he had received roughly $100,000 to $200,000 in cash from five different law enforcement agencies, although he was unable to give an exact figure. He explained that he was able to solicit paid work from these agencies whenever he wanted (“I decide when I want to work, and when I work, I get paid.”). Indeed, he testified to having received $800 for three hours of work the week prior.

Appellants now argue that the government violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose the full extent of the benefits Bulgarian received at trial. For those who don’t know, Brady v. Maryland was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that established that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that might exonerate the defendant (exculpatory evidence) to the defense.

On Appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that, under Brady, the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that in order to prevail on a Brady claim, the defendant must show that the evidence was material. Materiality is satisfied when “there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A ‘reasonable probability’ is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”

Here, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government’s attempts to minimize the significance of Bulgarian’s testimony are not persuasive in light of the record:

“While some of Bulgarian’s testimony was independently corroborated, it nonetheless played a substantial role in the government’s case-in-chief. In particular, Bulgarian’s testimony was relied upon heavily by the government to show that VBS was a ‘criminal enterprise’ under RICO. Therefore, had the alleged Brady materials been made available to appellants at trial, there is a “reasonable probability” that the result of the proceeding would have been altered.”

With that, and In light of the disputed facts surrounding defendants’ Brady claim, the Ninth Circuit remanded the convictions to the district court so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether Mr. Bulgarian received benefits that were undisclosed to appellants at the time of trial, and if so, whether Brady was violated as to each convicted count.

My opinion? Good decision. Since Brady was decided in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court has required that prosecutors and police officers disclose evidence that impeaches the credibility of any state witness, including police officers. Examples of impeachment evidence include false testimony, misrepresentations made in court documents, false information in police reports and internal police disciplinary proceedings.

Unfortunately, that is not being done.  There is no uniform system compiling Brady data; each county’s prosecuting attorney has different methods for assembling Brady information and different perspectives on when disclosure is constitutionally required. Naturally, this creates problems for defense counsel seeking exculpatory information from prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Fortunately, competent defense counsel has ways of overcoming these challenges, as demonstrated by the excellent representation given to the defendants in this case.

Author of Confidential Informants Book Exposes the Truth

 

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A new book discusses how confidential informants negatively impact the criminal justice system. In “11 Days a Snitch,” author Alexandra Natapoff discusses how removing confidential informants information from investigations bolsters law enforcement authority while reducing the ability of legislatures, the press and the public “to evaluate executive actors and hold them accountable.”

Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is considered one of the nation’s leading experts in the use of confidential informants. She has testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 2007 and had a hand in writing legislation in Florida known as Rachel’s Law, which was enacted in the wake of a young drug informant’s death. Natapoff discuses the negative impacts that confidential informants have had upon the justice system:

  1. CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED IN FAVOR OF KEEPING AN INFORMANT SECRET.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure. That means, generally, police need a warrant and a judge’s signature for permission to enter a house or listen in on a private conversation. A confidential informant wearing a wire, however, does not have to jump through those hoops (though some states have barred warrantless use of informants in this regard).

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to confront any witnesses against them. With informant witnesses, however, judges have chipped away at this right, in some cases allowing prosecutors to keep informants’ identities a secret. In 2002, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tried to strike a balance by allowing a confidential informant to wear a “wig-and-mustache disguise” on the stand.

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees defendants due process, which includes a right to know all the evidence the state has, including evidence that could discredit the state’s witnesses. For snitches, that evidence could include criminal history and any benefit (such as leniency for their own crimes or cash) they receive in exchange for cooperating with law enforcement. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that defendants are not entitled to that information before trial. Specifically, the court was concerned that revealing those details “could ‘disrupt ongoing investigations’ and expose prospective witnesses to serious harm.'”

Natapoff argues this is significant because about 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea deals. That means most defendants are pleading guilty without knowing if the evidence against them is completely legit.

2. THE WAR ON DRUGS IS DRIVING THE USE OF INFORMANTS.

In 1995, decades into the war on drugs, lawyer and journalist Mark Curriden published an in-depth look at law enforcement’s extensive use of informants by analyzing more than 1,000 federal search warrants from 1980 to 1993. In that time frame, warrants that solely relied on information from a confidential source increased by nearly 200 percent — from 24 percent to 71 percent.

Although it’s impossible to get an accurate number of informants in the U.S., a recent audit of the DEA’s CI program cited more than 18,000 active confidential sources from October 2010 to September 2015. However, that same report found that “the DEA did not appropriately track all confidential source activity.”

3. THE RISK FOR ABUSE IS HIGH.

Natapoff discusses the case of four NYPD cops, who for decades have apparently fabricated sworn statements and arrests with the help of fictitious informants. A State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn called one of the detectives “extremely evasive,” and did not find him “to be credible.” A judge in another federal case remarked: “I believe these officers perjured themselves. In my view, there is a serious possibility that some evidence was fabricated by these officers.”

“Given the reality that informant deals are baked into the criminal justice system, we are obligated to better regulate it,” Natapoff says. “We have fallen down in that regard. We have given such broad discretion to police and prosecutors and failed to create transparency and accountability mechanisms that would give us the confidence that these deals are being made in responsible ways.”

My opinion?
Transparency is essential to a fair and equitable criminal justice system. Knowing how we handle criminal behavior and dole out punishment allows the public to hold law enforcement accountable. The use of confidential informants, however, can pervert that premise in many ways. As a criminal defense attorney, I’ve always believed the use of confidential informants entrap many into committing crimes they would otherwise not commit. Snitches are motivated/biased actors who are not professionally trained in law enforcement and have significant criminal histories. All of these facts decrease their credibility. Kudos to Natapoff for showing the truth.