NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ruling Jeopardizes "Hundreds Of Thousands Of Convictions"

November 17, 1998

Since July, four separate federal courts -- including an appeals court -- have ruled that it is illegal for paid informants to testify during a trial. The Dallas Morning News reports that hundreds of thousands of federal convictions could be jeopardized.

The issue is whether prosecutors are committing bribery when they use witnesses who have been paid money or given reduced prison sentences in return for testimony in criminal trials.

In July, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed the conviction of Sonya Singleton in a drug-money laundering case. She was convicted on the testimony of a cocaine dealer who cut a deal with prosecutors for a reduced sentence. The three judges said the prosecutors violated federal bribery laws, which prohibit giving, offering or promising anything of value to a witness in exchange for testimony.

Today, the full 12-member 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will review the decision, and only three additional judges need to agree with the original panel to uphold its decision.

  • In the four months since the decision, federal trial judges in Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee have cited the 10th Circuit opinion in refusing to allow informant testimony.
  • At least a dozen judges are delaying making such decisions until the full circuit court rules -- or have rejected the original decision.
  • In a sampling of federal criminal cases in Dallas and Fort Worth between 1995 and 1997, reporters found 86 percent of nearly 300 cases reviewed involved the use of informants and the testimony of co-conspirators who received deals from prosecutors.

The decision of the circuit court is sure to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, say legal experts. And Justice Department officials are already lobbying Congress to protect federal prosecutors from bribery charges and allow the continued use of such witnesses.

Source: Mark Curriden, "Court to Decide Legality of Rewarding Informants," Dallas Morning News, November 17, 1998.


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