An appeals court in Washington today unanimously overturned a man's cocaine possession conviction because prosecutors failed to establish the reliability of the informant whose tip generated the arrest.
The D.C. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a man named Jovaughn Parsons, who was convicted at a bench trial in D.C. Superior Court in April 2009 in front of Judge Jennifer Anderson. Parsons was arrested in Southeast Washington in May 2008.
The appeals court said in its ruling (PDF) the U.S. Park Police detective who testified for the government at trial was not the primary law enforcement officer who had been working with the informant. The informant’s “main handler” was off-duty, and so he directed the informant to call another detective to pass on the tip.
Parsons’ trial attorney, Russell Hairston, a solo practitioner in the District, urged Anderson to suppress the cocaine evidence, saying that the detective who searched and found drugs on Parsons did not personally know the informant was reliable. An informant’s history of supplying credible information—a track record—helps establish the person’s reliability.
Anderson denied the motion under what’s called the “collective knowledge doctrine.” The detective, she ruled, did not have to know personally the informant was reliable. “What one knows, they all know,” Anderson said, according to the appeals court.
Writing for the appellate panel, Judge Kathryn Oberly said the informant’s main handler could have tried to establish the tipster’s credibility during trial. For whatever reason, the government did not offer that detective as a witness.
“The problem in the present case is that, even applying the collective knowledge doctrine, there was no testimony from which the trial court could have judged the informant’s credibility,” Oberly wrote.