Thursday, February 21, 2008

Brooklyn informant SNAFU inspires transparency legislation

Speaking of New York, the implications of a case involving police corruption and drug informants in Brooklyn keeps spinning more and more widely out of control, and exhibits many of the problems with overuse of informants frequently criticized on this blog. Reports the Gotham Gazette:

Last September, Brooklyn South narcotics officer Sean Johnstone told a fellow officer that he had paid his confidential informants with cocaine illegally seized from a crime scene. What Johnstone didn't realize, or had forgotten, was that his conversation was being recorded.

The ensuing internal police investigation has resulted in an embarrassing spectacle for the New York City Police Department and the Brooklyn South narcotics division, which includes Park Slope, Midwood and Coney Island and made 7,400 arrests in 2007. Four officers, including Johnstone, were arrested for illegally providing drugs or money to their confidential informants, while another dozen were suspended or transferred to other duties. The disclosures forced the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to dismiss charges or vacate convictions in 183 cases, and a new commanding officer was appointed to run the department's narcotics unit. ...

The scandal has given renewed life to legislation introduced last year by Brooklyn State Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, which would require law enforcement agencies to publicly disclose information about the use and effectiveness of confidential informants. The legislation would also limit the ability of prosecutors to drop or reduce certain types of charges in exchange for informant information.

Of course, if Officer Johnstone had given cocaine to an informant in Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals would have found a way to let him off. Be that as it may, I was interested in seeing the reference to legislative solutions on this topic. According to a press release from Assemblyman Lentol:

“No one is trying to stop the practice of using confidential informants. We understand that they can be vital in fighting crime and are an enormous time saver for both police and prosecutors,” said Assemblyman Lentol. “However we are trying to ensure that when they are used it is truly in the best interest of the community and that society is able to have some modicum of oversight and transparency.”

No one knows how often this practice is used or even how it is used. Assemblyman Lentol’s legislation, which was highlighted in a recent New York Times Story, would serve as a jumping off point to study this practice. In addition to putting in some much needed regulations, it compiles annual statistics about the use of informants so that judges, legislators and law enforcement have the tools and information they need to properly regulate this practice.

Some of Lentol's "transparency" requirements reflect the recommendations three years ago by Prof. Alexandra Natapoff, who's quoted in the Gotham Gazette article. Not many states have substantively tackled this problem, so I'll be interested in seeing what Lentol winds up proposing and passing on this subject. Maybe they'll have some good ideas we can borrow during Texas' 81st Legislature next year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We should NOT be surprised by corruption whenever we legislate "busybody" crimes involving personal misconduct that doesn't threaten anyone's safety. These are crimes involve prostitution, drugs, gambling, leash laws, and any other law in which only a small portion of violators cause harm. Only busybodies report these crimes - and when it's illegal they don't get to see most of them.
Ironically, nearly all the real dangers that evolve from these busybody laws is caused by banning. The abuse and mistreatment of prostitutes and the subjection of their johns to criminals is due entirely to the illegal nature of the activity. Same with banned drugs. It sure keeps our jails full of the "right" type of criminals.