Author: Jill Brisbois
It is the responsibility of every criminal defense attorney to question authority. With its most recent decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court has given defense attorneys yet another tool to hold police accountable, by requiring that the government disclose non-identifying information about their “snitches,” or those who offer inside information to the police.
When Is a Snitch Considered Reliable?
One of the common types of cases we handle at Caplan & Tamburino Law Firm, P.A. involves situations where police officers obtain search warrants based on information learned from snitches. The official legal term for a snitch is “confidential reliable informant.” The problem with this term, however, is that it is the police officer who gets to designate a snitch as reliable. This label gives the police the power to say what they want in support of a search warrant with no accountability because the identity of snitches is protected under common law.
Here is a typical example:
Let’s say a person gets arrested for possession of a controlled substance (drugs). The police officer tells that person, “If you rat three people out, I will not charge you with a crime.” That person then agrees to become a snitch. The snitch tells the police officer that “last week I was with Jane Doe and I saw her with meth and a gun.” The police officer surveils the Doe apartment and once everyone leaves, they show up with a drug sniffing dog that “alerts” them to the presence of a controlled substance. Based upon the snitch’s information and Fido’s snout, the police officer submits a search warrant to the judge with a generic statement about receiving information from a “confidential reliable informant.” That information, along with the dog sniff, is enough for the judge to give the police officer the authority to go into your home and search in your most private areas.
But what if the snitch has a vendetta against you and is trying to set you up? What if they are just making something up to get themselves out of trouble?
It is an attorney’s role to challenge whether there was probable cause to issue a warrant by trying to show the snitch was not reliable and there was no reason for the police to come and snoop in your house.
The courts look at several factors to determine whether a snitch is “reliable”:
- Has the snitch given reliable information in the past?
- Can the police verify the information provided?
- Did the person come forward voluntarily?
- Did the snitch engage in a controlled purchase (an illegal sale purposely coordinated by law enforcement)?
- Did the snitch give any information against their own interest?
In the past, courts would not order the government to give attorneys this information because they believed it protected the identity of the informant.
So, what has changed with the new Minnesota Supreme Court decision?
A New Court Decision on Confidential Reliable Informants
In State of Minnesota v. Dexter, A18-761 (Minn. April 8, 2020), the Minnesota Supreme Court found that when the information will not reveal the identity of an informant, the government must disclose non-identifying information about the source of the police officer’s information.
This can include questions such as:
- How long has the snitch worked for the police?
- Is there a written agreement to provide information?
- What is in it for the snitch?
- Did the police officer encourage the snitch to spy on you?
- How did the snitch make their observations?
How Does This Decision Help You?
The government does not want to turn over this information, either because they are concerned about the safety of the informant – or because these general “reliability” statements are all smoke and mirrors. Either way, the decision made in State of Minnesota v. Dexter could lead to the government offering extraordinary plea deals or a dismissal of your case, all to avoid disclosing the information of the snitch. Or, if the information is turned over, your attorney has the opportunity to prove that the snitch is not reliable.
As an MSBA Certified Criminal Law Specialist, I have tirelessly litigated this issue in at least two separate cases. In both instances, the end results were favorable for my clients. Even though both clients were facing lengthy prison sentences, they only received probationary sentences and one client did not serve a day of jail.
Do you need to speak with a Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer? Contact Caplan & Tamburino Law Firm, P.A. at (612) 444-5020 today for a free consultation.