PA Superior Court Rejects Search Warrant Issued on Word of Unproven Confidential Informant


The Use of Confidential Informants in Drug Cases

It is not a secret that the police often use confidential informants in the investigation of narcotics offenses. However, even when police make arrests and prosecutors bring charges based on evidence obtained by confidential informants, the identity of the confidential informant and extent to which police have used the CI in the past often remain a secret. The use of confidential informants is particularly prone to abuse. In cases where courts do not require prosectors to provide information about the identity of the confidential informant and proof of the CI's reliability, the defense is left with few options for challenging or verifying the testimony of the police officer about the evidence allegedly obtained by the CI.

Instead, officers are routinely permitted to testify, often without specifics, that the confidential informant has provided reliable information in the past and should therefore be trusted now. Likewise, despite the constitutional right to cross-examine one’s accusers in a criminal case afforded by the Confrontation Clause, Pennsylvania courts have increasingly accepted police and prosecution arguments that revealing the identity of the confidential informant in any case would jeopardize the safety of the confidential informant. Therefore, courts often deny defense attempts to learn any information about the confidential informant and deny motions to reveal the CI's identity. 

Confidential Informants Must Be Reliable In Order to Provide Probable Cause

In Commonwealth v. Charles Manuel (likely no relation to the World Series-winning Phillies manager), the Pennsylvania Superior Court appears to have reached its limit. In many cases, judges take an officer’s word for it on whether the CI has been reliable and whether the CI’s safety would be jeopardized by disclosure to the defense. In Manuel, the Superior Court held that the fact that the CI provided information on one prior occasion which led to an arrest did not sufficiently establish that the CI was reliable enough for police to obtain a search warrant based on the CI’s word alone.

In Manuel, police obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s house based solely on the word of a confidential informant. The confidential informant told officers that he or she had been to the defendant’s house and observed a marijuana grow operation. Police had also used the CI on one prior occasion, and the prior use of the CI led to an arrest. At the time of the investigation, however, the charges stemming from the prior investigation were still pending and had not been adjudicated. Accordingly, officers could not establish that the CI’s prior information was reliable enough to lead to an actual conviction. Finally, officers asserted that they had corroborated the CI's allegations because the CI told the officers the names of the occupants of the house. 

After officers checked real estate records and confirmed that the CI had correctly identified the owner of the house, officers applied for a search warrant. In the warrant, the officers indicated that the CI was reliable because the CI’s prior information had led to an arrest and that the public records check provided corroboration of the CI’s allegation that officers would find a grow operation. Because officers wrote that the CI observed the alleged marijuana grow operation, a magistrate granted a search warrant for the property. Of course, when officers executed the search warrant, they did find a marijuana grow operation. The trial judge denied the ensuing motion to suppress, and the defendants were convicted of Possession with the Intent to Deliver marijuana.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the defendants’ convictions. The Court ruled that the trial judge should have granted the motion to suppress because the warrant was lacking in probable cause. In many cases, the word of a confidential informant may be enough to obtain a search warrant. The court noted, for example, that an informant’s tip may constitute probable cause where police independently corroborate the tip, or where the informant has provided accurate information of criminal activity in the past, or where the informant himself participated in the criminal activity. However, there must be some real basis for believing the CI’s information to be reliable. In many cases, the police will use the CI to conduct controlled buys or conduct some other investigation of the defendant in order to corroborate the CI’s allegations. Once the allegations have been corroborated, the officers may obtain a valid search warrant.

Here, however, the officers simply failed to corroborate the allegations of the confidential informant, and there was nothing to suggest that the CI was in fact reliable. Although there is no magic number of arrests or convictions for which a CI must have previously provided information in order to be deemed reliable, it is clear that one prior arrest is not enough. The court must evaluate the totality of the circumstances, but in the absence of some corroboration, one prior arrest is likely insufficient. Because the information from the CI failed to establish probable cause, the warrant was defective. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the defendants’ convictions and the trial court’s ruling denying the motion to suppress.

Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Help With Drug Charges

Goldstein Mehta LLC - Philadelphia Drug Lawyers 

Goldstein Mehta LLC - Philadelphia Drug Lawyers 

If you or a loved one are under investigation or facing drug charges, we can help. Contact the Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC today. Our defense attorneys have extensive experience fighting drug charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have obtained successful results in cases involving alleged observed drug transactions, expert witnesses, and controlled buys involving confidential informants. Call 267-225-2545 for a free, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.

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