The Legal Food Chain Of Evidence

When Can A Confidential Informant’s Identity Be Revealed?

google-cover-artMuch has been made of the admissibility of testimony from confidential informants, primarily because the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right every defendant to confront the witnesses against him. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution reads, in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

However, when a confidential informant is used, the police want to protect the identity of their informant. This would seem to conflict with the rights of the accused, who have the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to confront the witnesses against them. The waters of our legal pond get particularly muddy when considering whether a confidential informant’s testimony caused a police officer to take a specific action that may have resulted in the arrest of the accused.

Sometimes, when the police officer’s testimony is only a repeat of the informant’s testimony, the testimony borders on hearsay, which then requires getting statements directly from a confidential informant. Getting the identity of an informant revealed so that person can be cross-examined does require certain procedures, and that was the topic of a ruling last week from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals. The ruling was handed up November 20.

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

Fourth District Court of AppealsThe 4th DCA, as it is known in Florida, covers Broward, Indian River, Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, and it issued a ruling this week on a current Broward County drug case. The defense attorney wants to expose the identity of an informant. The witness may have helped Hollywood, Florida police bring first-degree drug trafficking charges, specifically conspiracy to traffic cocaine and actual trafficking, against the defendant. The judge in the case agreed to reveal the identity of the informant, but the state objected to and appealed the ruling, saying the judge did not follow the proper procedures.

The 4th DCA finally issued their ruling and agreed with the prosecution, but it did not say the informant had to be protected. Instead, the appeals court told the lower court judge he must follow specific rules before allowing a confidential informant’s identity to be revealed.

In Florida, courts do require the identity of a C.I. to be revealed, but the defense attorney must show how the testimony of the informant will be helpful to the defense. If the accused and their attorney can demonstrate the need for the testimony, then a trial court must hold a hearing “to determine, in fact, whether the disclosure would be relevant and helpful to the defense.” In the case before the appeals court, the trial judge did not hold the hearing before issuing his ruling to disclose the C.I.’s identity.

Evidence From An Informant Can Be Difficult To Use

A confidential informant is tricky business for police, because such a fish in our legal pond can feed information to the law enforcement sharks, resulting in cases like the felony drug case currently at issue. But the difficulty is the chain of evidence revealed and the actions that result from the information provided by a confidential informant. When a C.I.’s legal food chain of evidence gets tainted, a prosecutor’s case can turn sour very quickly.

A qualified and experienced defense attorney will know how to handle a complex situation like this, which can mean the difference between getting a 30-year prison sentence and going home a free man. Knowing when to reveal a C.I.’s identity, as part of a defense or appellate strategy, requires the kind of expertise you will get with Glenn R. Roderman.

As for the current drug case, the lower court will have to hold a hearing before issuing a new ruling about disclosing the C.I.’s identity. That is part of the due process rights granted to the state of Florida. During the hearing, if the defense can argue the C.I.’s testimony will be vital to exculpating the accused, any objections the state may have to  the C.I.’s name will likely fall flat.