Sheriff's Department Swears Informants Are Trustworthy, Reliable Despite Entirely Random ID Number Scheme

by Tim Cushing
Apr. 29, 2015

Cops don't believe much of what criminals say -- even those who are still just "suspects" or "persons of interest." They'll say anything they can to stay out of jail. Perps are liars. Except when they're not.

When these perps become confidential informants, they're suddenly considered George Washington of the underworld -- paragons of truth and reliability. Affidavits and courtroom statements play up their honesty and integrity in a way only cops can: "CI-22 made several controlled purchases and said he saw weapons in the house." "CI-4130 has worked closely with Drug Interdiction over the past three years, leading to multiple arrests." And so on.

Confidential informants are given numbers rather than names to ensure those they've helped arrest don't come after them when they're released. A CI's "pedigree" is provided to magistrates in warrant applications and presented to trial judges as evidence of the informant's trustworthiness. All of these are sworn statements -- statements that rely on the confidential informant being not only who the officer says he/she is, but that this CI has proven trustworthy in the past. But all the courts -- and the defense -- see is a number.
In the [Richard] Graf affidavit, [Somerset Sheriff's Deputy Carl] Gottardi attested he had probable cause to believe Graf was hiding marijuana and other drug accoutrements in his home, based on information Gottardi received from a confidential informant called "11-25." 11-25 "ha[d] been a very reliable informant . . . for the past several years," and had helped "obtain[] numerous drug search warrants, . . . with numerous persons being charged and convicted of various . . . drug offenses," Gottardi swore. 11-25 had "also provided other law enforcement officials with reliable drug related information in the past." Specific to this case, Gottardi also wrote in the affidavit that 11-25 relayed his personal knowledge that "for several years [] Graf has continually sold large amounts of marijuana," describing the location of the "camp type residence" where Graf sold his "high grade, commercial type" stuff.

Relying on Gottardi's affidavit, a state Justice of the Peace signed off on the warrant, and during the search of Graf's home, police found marijuana plants and an unregistered short-barreled shotgun. Not surprisingly, Graf was indicted on federal firearms possession and drug charges.
CI 11-25: useful, honest and reliable. The sworn statements say "You can trust CI 11-25. He's never steered us wrong." Except that CI 11-25 could be literally anyone.

When Graf challenged these CI statements, he uncovered something that indicated the numbering system was worthless, and by extension, so was every sworn statement averring to the reliability of CI 11-25. Because there was no single "CI 11-25."
[H]is new lawyer decided to get to the bottom of things himself by digging up all the warrant applications filed by the Somerset County Sheriff's Department from April 2009 through April 2012 and searching for all references to "11-25." Turns out, there were none, that is, no warrant applications filed prior to April 2011 (which was when Gottardi got the warrant to search Graf's home) naming "11-25" as an informant. "11-25" did appear, however, in two of the warrant applications filed after Graf's, but in each of the three affidavits where "11- 25" was mentioned, the informant's background and history as a tipster were described a little differently.
It gets worse. The government's response completely undermined any previous claims of reliability -- not just for CI 11-25 -- but for any CI it had used to obtain warrants in the past.
The government fired off an explanation, though, and in support of its opposition to the motion, submitted a supplemental affidavit from Gottardi describing his "practice to periodically change the identifying numbers assigned to confidential informants." Gottardi also claimed that "the person designated CI 11-25 in the Graf search warrant has been assigned four identifying numbers during the course of" his work with Gottardi. In addition, "[o]ccasionally, identifying numbers will be re-used for different persons," Gottardi swore.
Graf shot back with the obvious: if the numbers have no underlying structure and are applied to any number of confidential informants, there's no way to verify the veracity of the officers' assertions on warrant requests. Just because one CI 11-25 was useful and honest doesn't mean the CI 11-25 in Graf's case was. CI 11-25 is no one. CI 11-25 is everyone. Sworn statements linking back to a group of informants all periodically using the same identifying number are what laypeople call "lies." It may not have seemed like a lie when the warrant application was filled out, but Graf's research shows that the CI 11-25 who helped generate probable cause either wasn't the person sporting the number when the warrant was obtained, or wasn't as reliable as the swearing officer portrayed him or her.
Gottardi's unconventional practice, Graf urged, "is meant to enhance the credibility of the [informant] whose number repeatedly appeared before the same [reviewing official], even though, according to Gottardi, they are different people."
The lower court was similarly nonplussed.
The court noted that "assigning the same numerical identifier to three different confidential informants within a relatively brief timespan" was a "surprising revelation about what seems . . . a highly irregular, ill-advised, and potentially misleading procedure."
Unfortunately, the judge chose to turn examination of this system and the randomly-numbered CI over to the ATF. The ATF looked it over and declared everything to be perfectly normal and CI 11-25 (who wasn't CI 11-25 at the time the warrants were obtained) just as honest and trustworthy as Gottardi had portrayed him in warrant applications. Graf's attempt to suppress the evidence was shut down.

The appeals court similarly found that the discrepancies between described informants -- combined with the "irregular" numbering system -- wasn't enough to call for the suppression of evidence. The leeway given to law enforcement by courts again makes an appearance, as even a numbering "system" that completely undercuts the alleged "pedigrees" of Gottardi's confidential informants isn't enough to show that he deliberately misled the magistrate when seeking warrants.
As we have acknowledged in the past, making a substantial preliminary showing is no easy feat, particularly when law enforcement relies on tips from unnamed confidential informants. See United States v. Higgins, 995 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1993) ("When the government obtains a search warrant based on information provided by a confidential informant, defendants often lack the information required to meet the exacting standards of Franks."). Graf, like many other defendants in the same boat, has simply failed to meet his burden of making a substantial preliminary showing -- particularly under the deferential clear error standard of review we afford to a court's denial of a Franks hearing.
Second-hand statements that can't even be attributed to a fixed number are still trustworthy enough to secure search warrants, apparently. And the courts will back up this irresponsible (to say the least…) behavior because just writing down whatever identification number comes to mind in the affidavit isn't considered too misleading. This numbering system could be deployed to cover up all sorts of unconstitutional activity -- like warrantless searches, Stingray use, intercepted communications, etc. In each case, the fruits of these searches could be attributed to statements made by an unverifiable confidential informant. Even better, the informant never need exist. Cops could approach magistrates with supporting statements from CI-whatever because there's absolutely no way to establish the CI's existence, much less his or her "pedigree."

Yes, a coherent and consistent numbering system would slightly increase the chances of the CI being identified, but it also provides a modicum of proof that this person exists, rather than just being a string of numbers entirely unrelated to any singular person.

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