Recent Blog Posts

Saturday, December 17, 2016

DOJ to investigate Orange County

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced an investigation--in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Central District of California--into unconstitutional informant practices in Orange County.  This is a welcome and important development.  Below are links to stories, and to the original letter from former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and U.C. Irvine Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, requesting that DOJ intervene:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Congress to hold hearing on DEA informant program

This Wednesday, November 30th, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing entitled "Oversight of DEA's Confidential Source Program."  The announcement describes the hearing as follows:

PURPOSE:
  • The hearing will examine the recent audits and investigations conducted by the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (DOJ OIG) of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Confidential Source (CS) Program. 
  • Topics include the current state of DEA’s oversight and management of its CS program, changes it has made to the program, and DEA’s response to DOJ OIG’s recommendations.  
BACKGROUND:

  • The DEA maintains an extensive and recently expanding CS program. DOJ OIG found deficiencies in DEA’s oversight and management of this vast network of confidential sources dating back to 2005.  
  • These CSs included employees from Amtrak, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), private bus companies, and employees in the parcel delivery industry being paid for information.
  • A September 2016 DOJ OIG audit found that from 2010 to 2015, DEA had 18,000 active CSs, with over 9,000 CSs receiving approximately $237 million in payments from the DEA.  
  • Much of the activity identified by DOJ OIG occurred under the previous DEA Administrator Leonhart who resigned in April 2015 after Chairman Chaffetz, Ranking Member Cummings, and other members of the Oversight Committee released a statement expressing “no confidence” in her ability to manage the DEA.
The U.S. Department of Justice OIG audit can be found in this previous post.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Young Idaho informant is killed

Isaiah Wall was 19 and, according to his friends and his phone, working as a police informant. He was killed by a gunshot to his head.  The Idaho State Police have not acknowledged whether he was working for them, or whether his death was related to his undercover activities.  Here is the ongoing investigation: Unfinished Business.

10th anniversary of Kathryn Johnston's informant-related death

In 2006, Atlanta police shot and killed Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old grandmother. Her death--which involved the botched and illegal use of numerous informants--triggered a national inquiry into informant use, a Congressional hearing, and several criminal prosecutions.  This CNN retrospective looks back at the story and the reforms that Atlanta has instituted since then.  Here is a link to the original 2007 congressional hearing.

Friday, September 30, 2016

DOJ audit of DEA confidential source program

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General has just released this audit of the DEA's Confidential Source Program.  In a rare glimpse into the scope and scale of informant deployment, the audit states: "Between October 1, 2010, and September 30, 2015, the DEA had over 18,000 active confidential sources assigned to its domestic offices, with over 9,000 of those sources receiving approximately $237 million in payments."

The audit was critical of the DEA. Here are a few excerpts:

  • "[W]hile DEA policy prohibits paying deactivated sources who were deactivated because of an arrest warrant or for committing a serious offense, we found two concerning instances of payments to previously-deactivated sources. In one case, the DEA reactivated a confidential source who previously provided false testimony in trials and depositions. During the approximate 5-year period of reactivation, this source was used by 13 DEA field offices and paid $469,158. More than $61,000 of the $469,158 was paid after this source was once again deactivated for making false statements to a prosecutor. . . .  [W]e estimated the DEA may have paid about $9.4 million to more than 800 deactivated sources between fiscal years (FY) 2011 and 2015."

  • "[W]e were extremely concerned to discover the DEA condoned its confidential sources’ use of “sub-sources,” who are individuals a source recruits and pays to perform activities or provide information related to the source’s work for the DEA. During our review of DEA files, we found evidence of sources who were paid based, in part, on the need to pay “sub-sources,” but the information in the files was insufficient to allow us to determine the full extent of such payments."
  • "[W]hen we asked the DEA Intelligence Division to provide us with an itemized list and overall total of payments to intelligence-related confidential sources, it was unable to do so. We reviewed DEA records and estimated that, during the 5-year period of our review, the Intelligence Division paid more than $30 million to sources who provided narcotics-related intelligence and contributed to law enforcement operations, $25 million of which went to just 9 sources. Additionally, we identified one source who was paid over $30 million during a 30-year period, some of it in cash payments of more than $400,000. We concluded the Intelligence Division’s management and oversight of its sources was not commensurate with the large amount of payments it made to them."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Threats against cooperators and calls for secrecy

Earlier this year, the Federal Judicial Center released a report assessing threats against federal defendants who cooperate: Survey of Harm to Cooperators.  A survey of federal judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and probation officers showed that the majority of these legal officials were aware of threats to or harms against cooperating defendants in one or more cases.  The survey identified hundreds of cases in which cooperators or witnesses were threatened or harmed.

The Marshall Project reported on this issue today in an article entitled "Is the Internet endangering criminal informants? A judicial committee proposes more secrecy."  A committee of the Judicial Conference has called for more secrecy regarding cooperator status, including proposals to routinely seal records or create special "sealed supplements" to every case.  But there are several problems with this approach.  As the Marshall Project put it:

"Many defense attorneys and free speech advocates say that the proposed new rules are troublesome (and perhaps unlawful) for at least two reasons. First, they say, creating a sealed annex in every case could deprive the public, and the media, of basic information that goes beyond the issue of cooperation. Second, several defense attorney told me this week the proposed new rules could have the perverse effect of making life even more dangerous for informants; the existence of sealed supplement would mean every inmate was presumed to be a “snitch” unless proven otherwise. And such proof would be hard to come by with the information sealed." 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Informant expert testimony held admissible in Connecticut

The Connecticut Appellate Court has held that expert testimony on the general unreliability of jailhouse informants is admissible, and that a trial court abused its discretion when it excluded a defense expert (me) in a trial in which the conviction depended on several jailhouse informants.  The opinion is here: State v. Leniart.  The discussion of the expert issue is in Part IV, beginning on page 42.

The opinion contains several key findings:

1. The Court "acknowledged the growing recognition by the legal community that jailhouse informant testimony is inherently unreliable and is a major contributor to wrongful convictions throughout this country." (p. 43, quoting State v. Arroyo)

2. "Although credibility determinations ultimately must be left to the jury, expert testimony nevertheless is admissible if it can provide a jury with generalized information or behavioral observations that are outside the knowledge of an average juror and that would assist it in assessing a particular witness’ credibility. As long as the expert does not directly opine about a particular witness’ credibility or [] testify in such a way as to vouch indirectly for or bolster the credibility of a witness, the expert’s testimony would not invade the province of the jury to decide credibility and may be admitted." (p.49)

3. An understanding of jailhouse informant culture, including the expectation of benefits and the lengths to which informants may go to procure and fabricate evidence, is not within the ken and understanding of the average juror (p. 50).

4. Expert informant testimony is similar to expert testimony regarding the unreliability of eyewitness testimony which is now widely viewed as admissible (p.51-52).

5. Generalized jury instructions may be insufficient to educate jurors regarding the dangers of informant unreliability,  since in eyewitness cases "generalized jury instructions were not an adequate substitute for expert testimony" (p. 52).


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Interview with Rachel Hoffman's mother Margie Weiss

Rachel Hoffman was a young informant who was killed in 2008.  Her parents' activism and lobbying led to the passage of Rachel's Law in Florida, which created new, more thoughtful police guidelines for handling informants.  Rachel's mother, Margie Weiss, has remained a vocal activist and educator on the issue of informant reform. As she put it, "[s]cared kids get talked into assisting the police department or some law enforcement agency for some smaller crime, and then gets sent into a much larger, much more dangerous situation. Initially my daughter was arrested for having less than an ounce of pot...and she received a death sentence." Here is the interview with her: How One Mother Turned Tragedy Into Triumph: The Rachel Morningstar Hoffman Story. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Orange County prosecutors in scandal seeking judgeships

The Marshall Project is reporting that two prosecutors directly implicated in Orange County's jailhouse snitch scandal are running for judicial office.  From the story, 'The Scandal-Singed DAs Who Wants to be Judges':

   For the past year, the district attorney's office in Orange County, Calif., has been battling the fallout from revelations of a decades-old scheme of planting secret informants near defendants' jail cells...Now two longtime prosecutors from that same office — Michael Murray and Larry Yellin — are running for Superior Court judgeships, aiming to take the bench alongside judges who have called them out for misconduct. Neither prosecutor has been formally sanctioned in the scandal. But both are supervisory-level district attorneys in an office that a judge recently ruled "habitually ignored the law over an extended period of time." Both, by their own admission, have withheld evidence. And both are considered shoo-ins by the local press. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Following a terrorism informant in real time

In this Sundance award-winning documentary, (T)error, filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe follow a local professional informant as he collects information about his target for his FBI handlers.  The New York Times Magazine, which published "The Informant and the Filmmakers" today, describes the film as follows:

   "By some counts, nearly half of the 500-plus terrorism-related convictions in federal court since the Sept. 11 attacks have involved informants. Before ‘‘(T)error,’’ most of what was known of their work came from indictments and snippets of wiretapped dialogue, served up by prosecutors and neatly presented for the courtroom. Filmed without the F.B.I.’s cooperation and apparently without its knowledge, ‘‘(T)error’’ shows how an informant puts a case together from its raw ingredients."

The article relies on Trevor Aaronson's book "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism," which criticizes the phenomenon of terrorism informants more broadly.   Interested readers should also take a look at Wadie Said's recent book "Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions," which argues that the federal legal system has become distorted in response to terrorism prosecutions in general, and the use of informants in particular.  Click here for links to both books.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Washington Post zeroes in on jailhouse snitches in capital cases

The Washington Post just ran this story entitled "Va. murder trial may become part of national debate on jail informants."  The story exposes the use of four questionable jailhouse informants in a Virginia death penalty case, and connects those issues to the Orange County scandal, another high profile informant debacle in Washington D.C., and reform efforts around the county. From the story:

"When a Virginia man faces a possible death sentence in a murder trial later this year, his fate may rest on the testimony of four jailhouse informants, two of whom were initially found mentally incompetent to stand trial in their own cases. 

The case of Joaquin S. Rams could soon become part of a growing national backlash over the government’s use of testimony from “snitches” — inmates who offer information against other inmates in exchange for lighter sentences or other benefits — to obtain convictions, sparked by a significant number of wrongful convictions attributed to false informant testimony."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

FBI pressures Muslim immigrants to become informants

This Buzzfeed article-- Welcome to America--Now Spy on Your Friends -- describes how the FBI routinely interferes with the immigration process in order to exert pressure on immigrants from Muslim countries to provide information.  As the article puts it, "[w]hen Muslim immigrants apply to become citizens, they often find the process delayed for years without explanation. Then, when they are at wit’s end, they get a visit from the FBI, with an offer they don’t dare refuse."

See also this 2013 ACLU report, Muslims Need Not Apply.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reliability hearings in Washington state

The Washington State House and Senate are considering bills that would institute pretrial reliability hearings in which judges would evaluate informant witnesses for unreliability before those informants could testify in front of juries. The House version would mandate the hearings; the Senate version gives judges discretion over whether to hold them or not.  News coverage from the Associated Press here.

Reliability hearings are one of many important tools available to combat unreliable informants and avoid wrongful conviction, including corroboration requirements, stronger and earlier discovery requirements, jury instructions, and limits on when and how informants can be used.  The Washington legislation thus represents an important first step.  It is motivated in part by the wrongful convictions of three young Washington residents several years ago who were convicted based on the testimony of a highly unreliable compensated informant.