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National Law Journal Series Uncovers World of Informants


May 1995

After a nine-month investigation in four cities, the National Law Journal has published a series criticizing the widespread and growing use of informants and their influence on the criminal justice system (Mark Curriden, "The Informant Trap: Secret Threat to Justice," National Law Journal, Feb. 20, 1995, p. 1; Mark Curriden, "The Informant Trap: Postal Agents Stamped By Scandal," National Law Journal, Feb. 27, 1995, p. 1; Mark Curriden, "The Informant Trap: Informer's Lies Trigger a Tragedy," National Law Journal, Mar. 6, 1995, p. 1).

The series argues that the use of informants is financed by property forfeiture from drug cases and fueled by long mandatory sentences for drug offenses that encourage defendants to become informants, even if they have little information to provide to police.

The first part of the National Law Journal investigation looked at 1,212 federal search warrants from 1980, 1988, and 1993 in four cities: Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, and San Diego. Author Mark Curriden found that the use of an unidentified informant as the only source in a search warrant has almost tripled between 1980 and 1993. In 1980, 24% of warrants issued relied only on a confidential informant, compared to 71% in 1993. Confidential informants were used in some way in almost all warrants in 1993 (92%), whereas they had been used less than half of the time in 1980 (46%).

Not only do the approximately 15,000 confidential informants dominate the issuance of search warrants, but the study also finds they earn large amounts of money. Between 1985 and 1993, cash payments to informants grew from $25 million to $97 million, not including payments from asset forfeiture funds or from evidence purchasing accounts.

In spite of the large numbers of informants, their central role as sources in search warrants, and the vast amount of money provided to them, there is little or no oversight of the informant system. As a result, Curriden argues, the nation's system of justice is in danger:

Abuses by informants and law enforcement threaten the rights and safety of innocent people, as well as the integrity of the courts ... the war on drugs is the engine driving this development.

The second part of the series discusses the U.S. Postal Service, which has had a number of scandals involving informants in the past several years. In the last part, Curriden reveals new information about the case of Donald Carlson, a 41-year-old businessman who was severely injured when police raided his San Diego home. Police were acting on a bogus tip from an unreliable informant that Carlson was involved in a cocaine smuggling ring.