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January 09, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 02:28 PM

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.

Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff A Barnes & Noble Best Pick of 2009

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