Convictions, Credibility, and Confidential Informants

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ October 21, 2017

In June of 2016, a York County Regional Police Officer met with her confidential informant (“CI”) and he informed her that within the last 72 hours he had “observed marijuana packaged for sale, multiple marijuana plants growing, and marijuana growing accessories” at the Manuel’s residence. The officer obtained and executed a warrant to search the residence, where the Drug Task Force found drugs and paraphernalia. Defendants Charles Manuel and Timothy Manuel were charged with Possession With Intent to Distribute.

Defendants filed a joint Motion to Suppress, contending that the warrant “lacked sufficient probable cause because the police did not perform any investigation to independently corroborate the information provided to them by the CI.” In order to obtain a warrant, the police must first have probable cause. Defendants asserted that the “reliability of the CI was not established,” as the CI had only provided information leading to one other arrest, which at the time the warrant was executed had not yet led to a conviction.

Probable cause is established by assessing the totality of the circumstances. Where the evidence consists solely of allegations by a police informant “who has not previously provided information, probable cause requires . . . corroboration of principal elements of information not publicly available.”

In denying the Motion to Suppress, the trial court determined that there was probable cause for the warrant and subsequent arrests, and found Defendants guilty after a non-jury trial. The Defendants appealed their convictions on the ground that the trial court erred in denying the Motion to Suppress.

The defendants asserted that without independent corroboration of the principal elements of the CI’s allegation, the officer lacked probable cause to obtain a warrant. They successfully argued to the Superior Court that a “solitary arrest not resulting in a criminal conviction is hardly deserving of automatic reliability behind a cloak of secrecy for confidential informants.” On appeal, the Superior Court reversed the convictions because the CI’s allegations, absent any corroboration, did not constitute probable cause.

The officer’s only attempt at independent corroboration consisted of running searches through PennDOT to verify that Defendant Timothy Manuel resided at the address provided by the CI and that Defendant Charles Manuel registered a car at the same address. Merely confirming the address does not corroborate any suggested criminal activity.

The Superior Court confirmed 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.” There is no clear test to determine when a CI has provided sufficient evidence such that his allegations alone would constitute probable cause without independent verification by the police; this must be determined by the totality of the circumstances.

“An affidavit . . . which merely states that the informer supplied prior information leading to . . . arrest[s] . . . cannot suffice to establish credibility because there is no indication that the information proved to be correct.” An arrest alone cannot indicate the accuracy of the CI’s information; unless the arrest leads to a conviction the CI’s information is not confirmed as credible. He could have supplied “bogus” information that was disproven in court. This holding is critical to future cases, as police often rely on the credibility of informants whose information has not yet convicted anyone. The stakes are high as this sort of challenge can result in a complete acquittal if the information was necessary to the probable cause determination.

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