Confidential informant study reveals weaknesses in New Jersey police practices

June 27, 2011

Research led three counties to begin undertaking policy changes,
adding to ACLU-NJ's efforts to reform NJ's criminal justice system

NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project have released a study today that examines the use of confidential informants in the state of New Jersey. The study, authored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice faculty, revealed inconsistent policies governing the use of confidential informants at all levels of government, which have led to violations of informants' rights and compromises in the integrity of criminal investigations.

"Because the practice of using informants in criminal investigations has such a long history with support from state laws and judicial decisions, we were surprised to find that the policy governing informant use in the state is so disorganized," said Professor Delores Jones-Brown, co-author of the report and a former Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor. "Though our sample size was small, it was disturbing to find that half of the officers surveyed were unclear about the requirements for the proper use of informants."

Police departments across the country have come to rely on informants as a primary way to pursue drug investigations, but their improper use has led to serious problems. After seeing the sometimes-tragic outcomes in other states, including the deaths of innocent people, the ACLU-NJ in 2007 began to look into New Jersey's handling of informants, a group frequently utilized in law enforcement but rarely reported on in larger society. In some of those national cases, confidential informants gave false information under pressure, resulting in police busts of innocent people with guns drawn, sometimes with tragic results such as in the case of Kathryn Johnson, an elderly woman who was shot by an undercover officer in a botched drug raid in Georgia. In other instances, they lead to wrongful arrests, such as the arrest of 38 people in Tulia, Texas, who were rounded up for drug offenses based on information from a confidential informant. In other past cases, police departments have sent confidential informants into dangerous situations they never would have encountered otherwise, such as in the case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old who was murdered while serving as an informant in Florida.

The report analyzed information and perspectives provided by both law enforcement and citizens, shedding light for the first time on how New Jersey law enforcement agencies use confidential informants. In most cases, people become confidential informants when law enforcement agents offer to reduce their charges or sentences in exchange for assistance with other criminal investigations. However, without proper regulation, the nature of their relationships can lead to an array of problems including ethical violations, botched prosecutions, civil liberties violations and even loss of life.

The researchers discovered that some departments throughout New Jersey failed to put agreements in writing, circumvented search warrant requirements, used juveniles improperly, and insufficiently checked the reliability of information given by confidential informants, who can be motivated by financial incentives or fear of prosecution, among other reasons, to fabricate information. Worse, many departments reported their belief that no policies existed, including the mandatory protocols issued by the Attorney General. Other departments believed they were merely advisory.

In Lower Township, Cape May County, the mishandling of confidential informants resulted in two waves of case dismissals since research for the study began. In a 2010 Sussex County case, an informant fabricated evidence (giving police crushed drywall and claiming it was cocaine he bought from local dealers), with devastating consequences for those falsely accused of selling drugs.

The study's authors, Dr. Jones-Brown and Dr. Jon Shane, who is also a retired Newark Police Department captain, issued recommendations to create uniform policies at all levels and to thoroughly train officers and prosecutors. Under those recommendations, law enforcement agencies should always receive prosecutors' approval before using a confidential informant (who must be registered with the state), have written and signed agreements between law enforcement and the confidential informant, institute processes to approve or deny the use of informants, develop a protocol for establishing an informant's reliability, strictly limit the use of minors, impose strict recordkeeping rules, and, above all, train officers regularly.

In response to the report, at least three New Jersey counties - Morris, Salem and Cumberland - have already begun to reform their policies, starting after their review of an early draft.

"We couldn't be happier to see some of the changes taking place in these counties," said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director for the ACLU of New Jersey. "We hope to work collaboratively with more counties, and the Attorney General, to see New Jersey adopt the most professional and effective practices for dealing with confidential informants."

The report is the latest ACLU-NJ examination of law enforcement conduct in the state. In May, eight months after the ACLU-NJ petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of systemic abuse by the Newark Police Department, the federal agency launched a probe into the department. Just days before that announcement, New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow announced new reforms to the state's internal affairs policy based on the ACLU-NJ's recommendations, which will go into effect in July.

The ACLU-NJ's report on confidential informants can be found online, as well as more information relating to reforms of police in Newark, in Camden and the rest of the state.

Category: Police Practices

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