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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jailhouse snitches pay $1000s for information

USA Today ran this indepth story about a pay-for-information scheme in the Atlanta jail, in which federal inmates looking for cooperation credit bought information to pass on to their handlers, passing it off as their own knowledge. Story here: Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain. The story offers an unusually detailed and extensive look at the ways that inmates and informants can game the system, buying and selling information that prosecutors and investigators then reward them for and rely on. In this black market free-for-all, inmates paid tens of thousands of dollars ($250,000 in one case) for information to lower their sentences, while FBI agents relied on snitches who were passing on second-hand uncorroborated information from the street. It is the fourth such scheme uncovered in Atlanta alone in the last 20 years.

A similar pay-for-information scheme was discovered in a federal prison in Louisiana, after Ann Colomb and her three sons were wrongfully convicted based on the testimony of dozens of snitch inmates. See this post: Professional Prison Snitch Ring.

Snitch-based convictions overturned in Washington

A four-year campaign by the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic and the parents of three young men has resulted in the reversal of three snitch-based convictions. Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman, and Paul Statler were freed on Friday after a judge vacated their robbery convictions. The three young men were facing sentences, respectively, of 20, 26, and 42 years. Here's the story: Judge vacates convictions in disputed robbery. Previous posts here: More on the Spokane convictions.

Their convictions were based on the perjured testimony of criminal informant Matthew Dunham, a convicted robber who received a 17-month sentence in exchange for his testimony. Another co-defendant later admitted that he and Dunham had fabricated their testimony against Larson, Gassman and Statler.

This is an important case for a number of reasons. First, it is extraordinarily difficult to challenge convictions after the fact, even where new evidence demonstrates innocence. A judge had previously denied the defendants' motion for a new trial after it was discovered that Dunham had lied, so the fact that the parties persevered and a court ruled in their favor makes this case uncommon.

Second, the case highlights how the lack of financial support for public defense in this country leads to miscarriages of justice. The attorneys representing the Spokane defendants were paid the paltry sum of $1,400 per case for cases that required hundreds of hours of investigation and preparation. Low attorney fees for complex cases are pervasive in many states, and they mean that even skilled well-meaning attorneys do not have the resources to defend such cases properly. For an indepth report on the phenomenon, see this U.S. Department of Justice Report: Contracting for Indigent Defense Services: A Special Report (April 2000).

Finally, it took years of work on the part of the Innocence Project and the families to bring about this reversal. The Statler family's efforts were extraordinary: as a result of their persistence, a Washington state legislator introduced a bill that would reduce the risks of informant use and future wrongful convictions. Such efforts were necessary because the criminal system does not have good internal mechanisms to protect defendants from lying informants--wrongful convictions are difficult to unearth and even harder to fix. As happens all too often, the legal system finally came to the right result in this case only because the families refused to give up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Federal judge questions fairness of "substantial assistance" rules

The New York Times ran this story about the infamous case of Stephanie George: For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars. Ms. George became a poster child in 1997 for the unfairness of federal mandatory minimum sentencing when she received a lifetime sentence for a half kilo of cocaine that her former boyfriend had hidden in her attic.

Ms. George also became a prime example of how informing, or in federal parlance, providing "substantial assistance" to the government, can turn the justice system upside down. Ms. George's boyfriend--a cocaine dealer and ringleader--and other members of the drug ring received lower sentences than she did because they became informants. Because Ms. George had no information, she couldn't snitch and therefore U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson had no discretion to lower her sentence, a sentence that the judge himself considered draconian and unfair. From the story:
"Stephanie George was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable," Judge Vinson said recently. "So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."
Judge Vinson's comment reflects an intentional design feature of federal drug law. Because becoming an informant is the only way a defendant can avoid harsh mandatory minimums, snitching has become pervasive in the federal criminal system.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New informant legislation introduced in Texas

A Texas legislator has just introduced a new bill, H.B. 189, that would bar the use of compensated criminal informants in capital cases. H.B. 189 would make informant and accomplice testimony inadmissible if "the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment." In effect, the bill embodies the sensible idea that paying criminals for their testimony is simply too unreliable to be used in death penalty cases. The Texas Tribune ran this story: Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases. The bill would also bar the use of alleged confessions made to jailhouse snitches unless the confessions are corroborated by electronic recordings. In many ways Texas has been on the forefront of this issue--the state already has drug and jailhouse snitch corroboration requirements. See this post: Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Snitch team in Florida generates millions in forfeitures and DOJ investigation

The Bal Habour police department is under federal investigation for its use of a team of informants to collect millions of dollars in forfeitures, often without making any arrests. The Miami Herald ran this story, Feds probe Bal Harbour Police Department over seized millions, describing how this small police department uses "a team of snitches and undercover cops" to "seize a fortune in cash every year" from all over the country. "Now, the special unit is under federal investigation for its handling of millions in seized dollars, including hundreds of thousands paid to snitches, questionable expenses and missing financial records." Over four years, Bal Harbour police spent thousands of forfeiture dollars on equipment, cars, boats, first class plane tickets, and a banquet. The department paid its informants $624,558.

Such programs are made possible by federal forfeiture law, under which police departments can keep a percentage of seized assets. Because the legal standards for forfeiture are lower than for a criminal case, police can seize money and assets without having to prove anyone guilty. For a great overview of forfeiture law and its reliance on informants, see Radley Balko's article in Reason Magazine, The Forfeiture Racket. See also this report from the Institute for Justice: Policing for Profit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Restoration of Rights Project

Every once in a while, I post something of general interest that is not informant-related. The Restoration of Rights Project is an important new resource from the NACDL (National Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers) that everyone with a criminal record should know about. It provides detailed information about every state: what rights are lost upon conviction, and how to get them back. Here's the description:
NACDL is pleased to offer, as a resource for its members and as a service to the public, a collection of individual downloadable documents that profile the law and practice in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to relief from the collateral consequences of conviction. The 54 jurisdictional profiles include provisions on loss and restoration of civil rights and firearms privileges, legal mechanisms for overcoming or mitigating collateral consequences, and provisions addressing non-discrimination in employment and licensing. In addition to the full profiles, there is a set of charts covering all 50 states (plus territories and the federal system) that provide a side-by-side comparison and make it possible to see national patterns in restoration laws and policies. The information covered by the charts is summarized on the page for each jurisdiction. These materials will be an enormous aid to lawyers in minimizing the collateral consequences suffered by clients and in restoring their rights and status.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Texas police pressure traffic violator into drug work

ABC News ran this story about a mother who was pulled over for traffic violations and then pressured into becoming a drug informant to avoid arrest. Story here: Cops Use Traffic Tix to Force Woman into Drug Buys, Lawyer Claims. This is the same scenario reported in Attica, New York, where another young woman was pressured into becoming a drug informant when she was stopped for failing to pay traffic tickets. See this post: Recruiting new informants. Such stories remind us that police have discretion to use any opportunity--even a speeding ticket--to recruit new informants, even when the offense is minor or has nothing to do with the crimes the police want to investigate.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

FOX News: slain mother was a working informant

FOX News ran this story about Jamie Seeger, a mother of two who was killed while working as an informant for a local sheriff's office in Florida. The family is suing in an effort to get more information. Story here: Slain mom was working for sheriff's office. Seeger's death may bring new scrutiny to the efficacy of Rachel's Law, which imposed new regulations on police creation and use of informants.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

FP: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem?

Foreign Policy just published this article on the troubling use of informants in domestic counter-terrorism: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem? The piece analyzes the large challenges of using unregulated criminal informants to do law enforcement work, and discusses a series of recent examples. From the article:
Professional informants are paid by law enforcement to infiltrate criminal or extremist circles, sometimes on a full-time basis. Yet they're not considered employees of the government and are not subject to the same rules. From warrantless searches to sex with targets to constructing terrorist plots out of thin air, the informant problem is not new, but this powerful investigative tool is under pressure like never before after being exposed to the harsh light of day in a series of recent terrorism trials. Growing media scrutiny and a pending civil lawsuit in California are aggressively challenging whether the benefits of aggressive informant tactics outweigh the risk to civil liberties and are raising troubling questions about the legitimacy of terrorism investigations

Friday, September 7, 2012

More on young informants

The New Yorker article is generating new awareness and a lot of great discussion about young informants and the use of criminal informants more generally. TalkLeft discusses the overall challenges of informant use here: Informants as Pawns in the War on Drugs. NPR's Talk of the Nation did a special segment on the topic here: Use of Confidential Informants Mostly Unregulated.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New Yorker story on young informants

The New Yorker has just published an important story on the use of young vulnerable informants. It discusses numerous cases in which young people have lost their lives trying to work off their own offenses, and reveals how common the practice is and how little protection the law and police typically provide. Synopsis here: The Throwaways: Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.

Monday, July 30, 2012

An alternative to snitching for juvenile drug offenders?

Using juvenile offenders as informants can be the opposite of rehabilitation: it keeps young people in contact with criminal networks and can exacerbate drug use and other dangerous behaviors. See this post on a Miami juvenile informant. But a new "restorative justice" approach in Texas offers a different model, in which juveniles charged with serious drug offenses are offered a chance at rehabilitation and skills training. Here's the NYTimes article: New Home for Juveniles Recruited to the Drug Trade. Almost no states regulate the law enforcement policy of turning young people into informants (see Dennis, Juvenile Snitches); the Texas experiment reminds us that the juvenile system is first and foremost supposed to be rehabilitative.

Friday, June 29, 2012

NYT Magazine on the complexity of snitching

Some of you may remember Alex White, the Atlanta informant who revealed the police corruption that killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. This Sunday's NYT Magazine details the often unbelievable twists and turns of that saga, from Johnston's shooting to White's career as a snitch for multiple local and federal agencies, to the Congressional hearing and prosecutions that ensured. A great window into the police/informant world: A Snitch's Dilemma.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Radio interview: Law & Disorder, WBAI-New York

Here's an interview I did with the syndicated radio show Law & Disorder, hosted by Heidi Baghosian, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild, Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and New York attorney Michael Smith: Law & Disorder, April 23, 2012, (about 9 minutes in).

In the news: released jailhouse informant accused in new murder

The Louisville Courier-Journal reports on a jailhouse informant who was released in exchange for his testimony. Two months later, he was charged in the murder of a 15-year-old. From the story:
Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin told James Mallory in February that he wasn't a good choice to be released from prison on shock probation, given his criminal history -- and, in fact, the judge had already denied the request previously.
But Chauvin nonetheless released him at prosecutors' request after Mallory came forward with what he called "bombshell" information in a letter offering the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's Office evidence against several defendants in exchange for helping him get out of a nine-year prison term.
Now, just two months later, Mallory is charged with murdering a 15-year-old boy.

Law review article on Rachel's Law

The Boston College Journal of Law & Social Justice has published this note, Toward Efficiency and Equity in Law Enforcement: "Rachel's Law" and the Protection of Drug Informants. It focuses on an important provision in Rachel's Law that was eliminated, that would have required police to provide potential informants with counsel. Here's the abstract:
Following the murder of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman--a 23-year old college graduate--Florida passed "Rachel’s Law," which established new guidelines for the police when dealing with confidential informants. Immediately prior to its enactment, lawmakers stripped Rachel's Law of key provisions. These provisions required police to provide a potential informant with an attorney before agreeing to any deal. Opponents of these provisions argue that they hamstring law enforcement agencies in their efforts to prosecute drug crimes. Rather than serving as an obstacle to effective law enforcement, the attorney provision in the original version of Rachel's Law enables efficient prosecution of crimes and protects minor drug offenders who may be unsuited for potentially dangerous undercover informant work. This Note recommends that the attorney provision be restored to Rachel's Law, and encourages other states to enact similar statutes.

In the news: Seattle ATF informant with history of crime against women

A story by the Seattle Times about an ATF informant with a disturbing history of violence against women: Violent criminal on federal payroll as informant. The story begins like this:
Despite a history of abusing women and violent behavior in prison, Joshua Allan Jackson managed to become a federal informant, trigger a citywide Seattle police alert and hold a 18-year-old woman as his sexual prisoner.

Impact of "Rachel's Law" on informant use

The Tallahassee Democrat has published this article about the effects of Rachel's Law on informant use in Florida, four years after the death of Rachel Hoffman: Four years later, Hoffman's death still impacts CI use. The article concludes that the Tallahassee police department made some significant changes.
For six months immediately following Hoffman's death, the department suspended the use of all CIs. For a long time, no one wanted to work narcotics cases, which often rely on informants, the chief said.
"We had to be confident in our investigators that they were ready," Chief Jones said.
An audit of department confidential-informant files conducted about six months after Hoffman was killed found lax record keeping and noted areas of improvement. Personnel were moved, the vice unit was made a part the Criminal Investigations Division of a new Special Investigation Section and supervision was stepped up.
Today, TPD's rules governing the handling of confidential informants mirror that of Rachel's Law, which was spearheaded by Hoffman's parents and provides some safeguards for vulnerable informants.
"I think we've got a very good policy now," Jones said. "We have elevated ourselves and are back in the lead and set the tone for the state."
Tallahassee is reminiscent of Los Angeles in the 1990s. After a massive grand jury investigation concluded that the jail was rampant with unreliable informants and that police and prosecutors were relying on them, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office instituted significant changes. Today, it has some of the most rigorous regulations for the tracking and use of jailhouse informants in the country: Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Legal Policies Manual.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Miami New Times series on juvenile informant

Enriquez Bosco was 15 years old when he became an informant for the police, providing information against one of Miami's most notorious gangs. This three-part series in the Miami New Times documents Bosco's travails--including drug addition, rape, and ultimately deportation--from which his handlers failed to protect him and in some cases, may have brought on. From Part 2 of the story:
Enriquez's story begins and ends in Nicaragua, where he was exiled this past June. Though he had cooperated with Miami police to bust as many as 30 gang members -- including leaders of the infamous International Posse -- authorities allowed him to be beaten, raped, and exiled to the country of his birth with barely a mention of his service. His crime: a guilty plea to possessing traces of cocaine, a third-degree felony that required two days in jail. It resulted from a long-ago drug habit that started when police employed him to make a drug buy.
Juvenile informants often incur terrible risks with little or no protection from the legal system. For an indepth look at the phenomenon, see Andrea Dennis, "Collateral Damage? Juvenile Snitches in America's Wars on Drugs, Crime and Gangs," 46 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1145 (2009).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The way it's supposed to work: organizational informants

The strongest arguments for informant use are connected to the nature of criminal organizations: informants permit the government to get information about, infiltrate, and destabilize group criminal activity. The most famously effective such deployment was the FBI's use of informants to go after the mafia, a success story that is often invoked in support of informant use more generally. Of course even that success story had its costs: see this post on the dangers of mafia informants.

These tactics are now on display in several recent cases regarding insider trading and computer hacking, in which the use of informants has not only permitted prosecution of individual wrongdoers but may be weakening the culture of collective wrongdoing itself. According to this Reuters report, "[t]he FBI says it has enough informants lined up to keep its investigations of suspected illegal insider trading at hedge funds going for at least five more years." The New York Times opines that the conversion of a leading hacker into an informant "will sow even more distrust and dissension in the ranks of [the international hacker movement]." In both communities, the knowledge that colleagues and peers may be informants could well chill criminal activity. At the same time, the government should be careful not to send the message that becoming an informant is a get-out-of-jail-free card, a double-message that could undermine deterrence. See this post.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Professor Bret Asbury on "stop snitching"

The Oregon Law Review has published an article by Professor Bret Asbury entitled "Anti-Snitching Norms and Community Loyalty," 89 Or. L. Rev. 1257 (2011). Here's the abstract:
In recent years a troubling trend has emerged within a number of poor, black communities. Termed "Stop Snitching," it has manifested itself in the form community members' refusing to cooperate with police investigations of community crimes. The result of this widespread refusal to cooperate has been a reduced number of crimes solved within these communities; without cooperating witnesses, it has proven exceedingly difficult for police to make criminal cases. 
Reactions to Stop Snitching have taken two predominant forms, both of which are mistaken. The first, most often attributed to law enforcement officers, is contempt. To them, community members who do not assist in criminal investigations are violating the ethical obligation all citizens have to aid in the arrest and prosecution of criminal actors. The second reaction to Stop Snitching, most often coming from citizens largely isolated from poor, black communities, is confusion. Assuming the police to be allies of the citizenry, they wonder why anyone would even entertain the notion of refusing to help the police solve community crimes. 
This Article suggests a different understanding of Stop Snitching, arguing that poor, black community members' refusal to cooperate with police investigations should be viewed as neither ethically condemnable nor inexplicable, but rather as a natural extension of the innate human aspiration to be loyal. It does so by situating Stop Snitching within the existing literature on loyalty and asserting that the refusal to cooperate with police represents a privileging of community loyalty over loyalty to the state. Throughout the various strata of contemporary society, such privileging of the familiar over the remote is common, and Stop Snitching is neither puzzling nor reprehensible when viewed as a manifestation of this manner of prioritization. 
Once Stop Snitching is understood as a reflection of the weak loyalty bonds that exist between police officers and the poor, black communities they serve, it becomes clear that it can only be curtailed and ultimately eliminated through police efforts aimed at strengthening these bonds. This Article closes with a discussion of the steps police should take in order to succeed in this regard.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

FOX News story on informants in Boston

FOX Undercover in Boston ran this story on the dangers of informant use: Informants cutting deals to continue lives of crime. Congressman Stephen Lynch was interviewed for the story. Lynch is the author of the Confidential Informant Accountability Act, see this post. When asked whether he was worried that informants get a "free pass," here is what he said:
It's worse than that. They get a free pass to continue their criminal enterprise. They get protection, basically amnesty. I just think there's a corrosive element to this confidential informant program.
By contrast, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan focused on the benefits that informants can provide when investigating corrupt organizations:
Particularly as you're looking at things like organized crime, they played a critical role with regard to putting matters together in order to infiltrate the organization. It took a long time for the government to penetrate these organizations, and they did it initially by using informants, finding people who had some vulnerabilities and then exploiting those vulnerabilities and getting them to become government cooperators.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tallahassee agrees to pay $2.6 million in informant Rachel Hoffman's death

The city of Tallahassee, FL, has agreed to settle the case over informant Rachel Hoffman's death for $2.6 million. Story here. Tallahassee police had sent Hoffman, a young inexperienced informant, on a sting operation to buy guns and drugs, during which she was killed. After Hoffman's death, the Florida legislature passed "Rachel's Law" which requires Florida police to create guidelines for the creation and use of informants. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law offers some protection to informants. The Hoffman settlement is an important milestone because it acknowledges that governments may be responsible for the dangers that informants often face when trying to satisfy police or prosecutorial demands for information and cooperation. Recently, several other families have brought similar suits for the death of young informants. See here , here, and here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Washington state family sues police for the murder of their informant son

From the Washington State Daily News: Family of murdered informant files claim.
The parents of a slain Longview drug informant have filed claims against Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, saying narcotics detectives coerced 26-year-old Jeremy McLean into their service, then failed to protect him from a drug dealer he'd helped police snare. 
McLean, who was murdered by William Vance Reagan Jr. in late 2008, was arrested on drug-related charges and "was forced to sign a plea agreement ... in order to avoid incarceration," according to documents filed late last month. The terms of the plea agreement required McLean to become an informant for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, according to the claim... 
Reagan, who was sentenced to life in prison, confessed to the killing, saying he was trying to keep McLean from testifying against him.

Mexican cartel informant testifies in Texas

Here's an unusually detailed glimpse into the activities of a Mexican informant who was part of the Zetas cartel while working for the DEA: Snitch tells of spying on Zetas. It's unusual in part because of the generally secretive nature of informant use, but also more concretely because trials are infrequent and therefore informants rarely testify. On the extent to which informant/cartel members have become central to U.S. law enforcement in Mexico, see this previous post: NYT: Numerous Mexican drug informants benefit U.S. law enforcement.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reuters criticizes leniency for insider trading informant

David Slaine, a participant in the Galleon hedge fund insider trading scandal, was sentenced to probation and community service on Friday in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. He was facing up to 25 years in prison. This column from Thomson Reuters argues that Slaine got too good of a deal:
NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A financial snitch has gotten off too lightly. David Slaine, a former Galleon Group employee, pleaded guilty to insider trading and conspiracy but became an informant to help nab others, including the hedge fund and trading scandal kingpin, Raj Rajaratnam. At the urging of prosecutors, a federal judge has rewarded Slaine with probation and community service instead of up to 25 years in prison. Such leniency risks overreliance on criminals. . . .The justice system probably can't crack big cases without the cooperation of unsavory characters, and giving Slaine favorable treatment is justified up to a point. But even for the best information, letting confessed felons like him essentially off the hook is too high a price to pay.
In a similar vein, this New York Times piece points out that, under recently proposed amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, heavier sentences for insider trading will make cooperation--and the vastly lower sentences that accompany it--an increasingly prominent feature of white collar prosecutions.
The potential for higher sentences means the incentive to cooperate with the government in an investigation will be that much greater. There is already a significant disparity between the sentences of a cooperating defendant and one who goes to trial, and the best way to avoid the recommended sentence under the guidelines is to help prosecutors convict others.... 
The benefits of cooperation are likely to be on display in the near future when crucial cooperating witnesses in the prosecution of Mr. Rajaratnam are sentenced. Anil Kumar and Rajiv Goel testified at his trial, and prosecutors are likely to recommend substantially lower sentences than those received by other defendants who pleaded guilty but did not cooperate, like the 30-month sentence given to Danielle Chiesi.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Detroit teen killed after becoming an informant

Shelley Hilliard, a 19-year-old transgendered woman, agreed with police to set up a $335 drug deal in order to avoid being arrested for marijuana possession. Three days later she was killed, allegedly by the man she set up. Detroit News story here: Teen found dead three days after helping police. This story illustrates how informant culture encourages dangerous decisions that are wildly disproportionate to the crimes involved. This young woman took a great risk to avoid the petty offense of marijuana possession, and police turned her into an informant, with all its attendant risks, in pursuit of another petty drug deal worth less than $400. Such important decisions--by individuals or police--should not be made so cavalierly. For example, Florida's "Rachel's Law" requires police to establish guidelines to determine when it is appropriate, or too dangerous, to turn a suspect into an informant. Rachel's Law was passed in response to the death of Rachel Hoffman, another young informant who was killed while setting up a drug deal. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, and the Families & Youth section on the main website for related stories.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Supreme Court begins debating informant unreliability

The Supreme Court released an order today denying certiorari in Cash v. Maxwell, formerly Maxwell v. Roe, an important Ninth Circuit decision discussed in this previous post. Usually the Court does not explain cert denials, but this case generated a heated debate between Justice Sotomayor, who supported the denial, and Justices Scalia and Alito who thought the Ninth Circuit's decision should have been overturned. See SCOTUSblog post here, and L.A. Times story here.

Today's decision is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows that the Justices have joined numerous state and federal legislators in recognizing the problem of informant unreliability. Informant-based wrongful convictions are increasingly frequent in the courts and in the news, and many states have taken up the issue. See Legislation Section of the main website. Although the Court did not answer the question today, it's a sign of the times that the Justices are arguing about it.

Maxwell also shows how the legal debate over informant use is becoming less about procedure and more about substantive questions of reliability and innocence. Until recently, most informant litigation has been a fight over disclosure: the information that the government must disclose regarding its use of compensated criminal witnesses. The Maxwell case and the Sotomayor/Scalia debate squarely confront the substantive question of unreliability: how unreliable can compensated criminal witnesses be before the law restricts their use? Or to put it another way, how high is our tolerance for the likelihood of wrongful conviction? Even Justice Scalia concluded that the informant in Maxwell's case was a "habitual liar," and that there were reasons "to think it likely that he testified falsely" at Maxwell's trial. The Ninth Circuit took the next step, holding that the Due Process Clause does not permit such clearly unreliable evidence to be used. As a result of today's cert denial, this holding stands.

Finally, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that the Ninth Circuit relied on "an avalanche of evidence" that the informant in that case was unreliable. The existence of such evidentiary avalanches is a relatively new phenomenon. Thanks to the innocence movement and numerous new studies (see Resources & Scholarship section on the main website), courts and litigators have more evidence than ever before regarding the unreliability of criminal informants. These new data will surely change how courts consider such questions in the future.