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Philadelphia's Informant System: Broken Like All the Rest

William Kuhns,
Washington Legislative Office
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May 12, 2009

Last year, Jag Davies of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project wrote a very informative blog post about some of the problems with the law enforcement’s informant system. Jag’s post and several others make it crystal clear that the informant system is broken.

On April 28, 2009, the Philadelphia Inquirer broke a story that further demonstrates just how broken the informant system is. According to the Inquirer, Philadelphia police officers were faking informant evidence to obtain search warrants, resulting in the arrest and incarceration of innocent people. The article focuses most of its attention on one officer named Jeffrey Cujdik. Officer Cujdik received 186 search warrants in the last three years. Of the 186 warrants, 95 percent of them were based solely on the information provided by confidential informants, 43 percent of which came from an informant named Ventura Martinez.

Martinez recently came forward and alleged that Cujdik had repeatedly fabricated evidence to obtain warrants, which triggered a large multiagency investigation.

The Philadelphia Police Department has taken steps to address this issue, including putting Cujdik on desk duty and examining several department policies. Desk duty and policy changes will only do so much good though. As Deputy Police Commissioner William C. Blackburn said, “even stronger policies could not prevent an officer who intends to circumvent the regulations from doing so.” Blackburn went on to suggest that at some point, an undercover operative should be introduced into the operation. This may be an idea worth considering, and there are others.

The ACLU has developed draft legislation that offers reforms aimed at ensuring integrity and credibility in the use of informants. An important component of these reforms is that search warrants in narcotics cases involving an informant contain corroboration of the informant’s statement. If Pennsylvania law or the Philadelphia police department had such a policy in place, Cudjik and Martinez’ actions would have not led to the arrest and incarceration of innocent people.

A little transparency will go a long way in reforming the informant system. Right now, acting on bad information or fabricating evidence is too easy because the source of that information, the informant, can’t be called into court to verify its validity. Compound this with the fact that informants are frequently paid or otherwise compensated, and that officers receive commendations and promotions largely based on how many drug dealers they bust, and you can see why introducing false evidence is a problem.

Inserting an undercover officer into the process and creating a paper trail would also remove some of the impediments faced by defense attorneys and would allow them to more adequately defend their clients. Currently, defendants are disadvantaged because unlike officers, confidential informants often cannot be called to testify in court. The ACLU has proposed an additional reform based on a Texas statute that precludes a conviction in any narcotics case based solely on the testimony of an informant.

As you can see from another of Jag’s blog posts, implementing this strategy will not even come close to solving all the problems with the informant system. But it would be a step in the right direction for Philly.

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