The Cautionary Instruction: Confidential informants under increasing scrutiny

Friday, 18 April 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20140417wap phillyskyline490

In 2013, 246 people were murdered in Philadelphia but the police only received 82 tips about those homicides. Officials say those numbers are indicative of the “no snitching” culture in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia officials are actively trying to recruit informants to help solve murders through innovative social media efforts and good old fashioned rewards. Ironically, at the same time a high profile Philadelphia informant is being eviscerated in the media. Tyrone B. Ali an informant who was helping the Attorney General’s office in a corruption probe has been hung out to dry.

Informants are a hot topic in Philadelphia. Anyone thinking of cooperating with police is certainly going to be influenced by the battle between the attorney general, a former lead prosecutor in the attorney general’s office and the district attorney of Philadelphia.

Last month, Attorney General Kathleen Kane decided to drop a political corruption probe in Philadelphia.

One of the primary prosecutors in the investigation was Frank G. Fina. He is now front and center in this embarrassing public dispute along with his new boss Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

The dispute is centered on the viability of corruption prosecutions which hinge on the credibility, or lack thereof, of Ali.

A confidential informant is a person usually accused of a crime that either comes forward, or is asked by police, to offer assistance in exchange for leniency. Jailhouse informants, inmates often already convicted, are commonly recruited to testify about statements made by other inmates accused of murder, organized crime, sexual assault and just about any other crime.

The confidential informant has a useful place in the investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct. The closely vetted and reliable confidential informant can provide a wealth of information about an ongoing criminal enterprise. A drug informant can make controlled hand-to-hand purchases of illegal drugs without which there would be few successful drug prosecutions.

At times, confidential informants go sour. In Sarasota, Florida prosecutors dropped or reduced felony drug charges against more than a dozen people after learning that the police informant who set up the drug deals had sex with some of the defendants.

The informant crossed ethical and legal boundaries in what is already a murky world where criminals work with undercover officers under unseemly and often dangers circumstance to document criminal activity.

Although almost invisible to the public, the use of criminal confidential informants permeates the criminal justice system across the country. According to Alexandra Natapoff in Secret Justice: Criminal Informants and America’s Underground Legal System, “These deals typically take place off-the-record, subject to few rules and little oversight. While criminal informants…can be important investigative tools, using them has some serious costs.”

(Top image: The skyline of downtown Philadelphia. Tom Mihalek/Associated Press)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.